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6/20/2013
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Android App Offers Caller ID, Call Blocking

PrivacyStar bills itself as first app with ability to block calls and texts, add Caller ID and report abusive callers directly to FTC.

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Getting nuisance calls on your smartphone? A new Android app has been designed to help people fight back.

Arkansas-based mobile application development firm PrivacyStar this week launched an app that adds additional features and information to the incoming-call screen on an Android smartphone, including a real-time caller ID system, as well as a way to file abuse complaints with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

PrivacyStar Text & Call Block, an Android app available via Google Play, also can be set to block certain phone numbers outright, respond with an automated message, or -- for non-nuisance calls -- add the phone number to a phone's contacts list. Customization options, meanwhile, allow for certain types of calls to be routed immediately to voicemail, and an automated text message sent to the phone number.

Although the basic app is free, for $3 a month you can remove the in-app advertisements and use Caller ID and reverse-number look-ups for calls and texts after a seven-day trial of these features.

[ Mobile spam skyrocketed in 2012. Read SMS Spam Delivers More Malware, Scams. ]

Nuisance calls and spam texts are rife, with 68% of cell phone owners reporting they have received unwanted sales and marketing calls at least once, and 25% saying they receive multiple unwanted calls weekly, according to a Pew Internet and American Life Project study conducted in April 2012. Similarly, 69% of people who text reported receiving spam texts, with 25% saying that got spam texts at least once a week.

Founded in 2008, PrivacyStar builds smartphone apps for Android, BlackBerry and iOS devices and offers an accompanying service for monitoring the numbers used by nuisance texters and callers. PrivacyStar's apps also help automate the process of reporting complaints by capturing the date, time and phone number of the call. They then let the user add additional information about the call and file the complaint with the FTC. The company says that to date, its software has blocked over 120 million calls and been used to file more than 300,000 complaints directly with the FTC, which maintains the National Do Not Call Registry.

"One of the top complaints smartphone consumers have today is the inability to block unwanted calls and texts -- we provide that control and make it extremely easy and intuitive," said Jeff Stalnaker, CEO of PrivacyStar, in a statement. PrivacyStar itself does not track or sell data from its location-based services and does not download or share users' contacts, he said.

PrivacyStar obtains Caller ID information from one of several legitimate businesses that provide such data. "Our service partner has been around for many years for landlines and our objective is to provide that same quality of caller ID service for mobile users -- in accordance with what is permissible by the various privacy regulations and consumer preferences," Stalnaker said via email. "We do not use any crowdsourced data for our caller ID -- such as scraping contact lists."

Earlier this month, PrivacyStar also launched a $4 iOS app called Lookup+ that provides directory assistance, phone number lookups and the ability to file a complaint with the FTC. But the app doesn't offer call-blocking, because that feature isn't possible unless a user jailbreaks his iPhone. (For a free call blocking equivalent, however, one technique involves storing an offending number in your address book, labeling it as "scam," and setting a silent ringtone.)

The rise of unwanted messages being directed at smartphones can be traced to the low cost of VoIP calls, which have allowed criminal organizations to inexpensively -- or even freely -- launch large-scale phone scams against people in other countries. Policing these cross-border operations can be difficult. The FTC's filing of charges against Microsoft fake tech-support phone scammers earlier this year, for example, resulted from a joint effort with telephone regulators in multiple countries, including Australia and Canada.

David Torok, a director in the bureau of consumer protection at the FTC, said that although the FTC doesn't endorse any service, companies such as PrivacyStar regularly batch and submit complaints to the agency, which feeds them into the agency's Consumer Sentinel Network, he said. This network is "a secure FTC database that 's available to other law enforcement agencies across the country -- and around the world," he said.

He said the list of agencies that provide data to the secure database include the FBI's Internet Complaint Center (IC3) and Better Business Bureaus in every state.

Although the number of nuisance and scam phone calls and texts today might seem to be astronomical, Torok said that in the spirit of big data, the more legitimate complaints received by the agency, the better for spotting egregious behavior.

"We're bringing together aggregate data from multiple sources, and when suddenly one complaint from one office is coming from 10 offices," he said, investigators get tipped that something suspicious, perhaps well-organized and possibly illegal is underway.

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