Someone Invent This: A Home-Based Call Filtering Service

This is the first post in a new category of posts on this blog: Someone Invent This. Every so often, I’ll get an idea for a product, a business, a service, or a technology that I’d like to see come to market. I figure if I throw the idea out there, there’s a chance someone might pick it up and run with it – or, better yet, maybe the service or product already exists in some form and I just haven’t found it yet.

So here’s what I’m looking for: a better way to block, filter, and generally manage phone calls that come into my home. In the email era, we’re used to having some form of control over when and how we are communicated with – we have spam filters, challenge/response systems, and of course the ability to only check email when we feel like it. Phone calls are the most intrusive form of remote communication – we have these little boxes that make noise, any time of the day or night, and anyone can dial our number and interrupt whatever we’re doing. We only have basic, binary-like control over our phones: plugged in, or disconnected. Ringer on, or ringer off. There are some rudimentary controls from the phone company – the ability to block unknown callers for instance, but they’re crude and limited. Over the past few months we’ve had a few late night wrong-number calls, and a constant barrage of telemarketers calling during our dinner time. I’m envisioning a system that would allow for a much greater degree of when and how you’d receive phone calls in your home.

This proverbial “little black box” would sit between your incoming phone lines and the house lines, or if you’re using a digital phone/VOIP service, sit between your VOIP box and your house lines leading to your phones. It would also be connected to your router and be managed via a Web browser with a simple user interface and would filter all incoming calls at certain times (after 10pm), turn them back on at a certain time (7am), and would give you the control to turn off incoming calls during your dinner hour. It would have an option for a message to allow for emergency calls to get through by a voice prompt saying the user has turned off their phone, but press a certain number combination (that would change randomly) to bypass – this would be optional, but it would stop all of the automated calling services cold. In fact, you might think of it as a basic Turing test for the phone – verification that the call is really coming from a person.

It would also have a “whitelist” of incoming numbers (family, friends) that could get through at any time of the day or night without any challenge. What about a community-based voting system where people could rank incoming phone numbers as being from telemarketers? Similar to community spam tagging, the user could open up the system’s incoming call history and mark the phone call at 6:05pm as being a “junk call” and comment why. If more than “x” number of people classified it as a junk call, it would automatically be filtered and not passed through. There would be a way for a caller to visit a public Web site and see (anonymously) the complaints against their phone number. Also included would be basic functionality for controlling the blocking of anonymous or unknown callers. There’d be some sort of address book (Outlook, Gmail, etc.) synchronization to populate the black box with known good numbers.

The business model is pretty simple: if it was sold independently by a networking manufacturer (D-Link, Belkin, etc.), there would be a charge for the black box, and perhaps there would be some sort of a low yearly fee for the service, software updates, tech support, etc. Or it could be sold by your phone company as a value-added service for a monthly fee. It might also be implemented by mobile phone carriers as more people move to just having mobile, and not home, phones.

Those are just a few ideas – there are many creative uses for a filtering system such as this. Putting some software intelligence between you and your phone system would allow for a definite improvement in the way we use our phones.

  • Janak Parekh

    Jason, something like this exists. I don’t know the name of it, but my PhD advisor certainly had a comprehensive filtering setup on her home. (She gave us, her students, the bypass code. I don’t think it had all the features, but I didn’t investigate it more closely at the time.)

  • cephus6

    Google just bought a company that is doing something similar called Grandcentral. This service is a different phone number that will call your work, home , cell and announce the call you can decide then if you want to take or send to voicemail. It also gives you whitelist for friends and family and can make rules to send calls directly to voicemail.

  • Ah yes, I remember hearing the complaints about Grandcentral users who were losing their “phone numbers for life” because of the Google acquisition. Interesting…I’ll have to look into it further. Thanks for the heads up!

  • chrisgohlke

    Look up the ScreenMachine. I’ve had it for years, and it is exactly what you want. Jason, I’ll e-mail you my home phone number and you can see how it works.

  • chrisgohlke

    Just looked, apparently it has been discontinued, but this looks like a substitute, but lacks two features – http://www.privacycorps.com/products/?id=4

    The missing feature appear to be the ability to record your own message and the ability to have multiple menu options. On mine there are three different numbers that you can press that will ring through, but each generates a specific ring pattern. So, the main code is part of the message, and I have given family another so that I know it is family calling if I am in the mood not to pick up.

  • OSUKid7

    I also thought of GrandCentral after reading your post. I doesn’t include all the features you described, but it does offer a lot. I have a few invites left if you’d like to try out the beta.

  • Sure, shoot me a beta invite – I’d like to check it out. Use the contact form, or just email me: jason [at] this domain.

  • Wow, this really IS exactly what I was talking about:

    http://www.grandcentral.com/howitworks/spam_and_blocked

    “Wouldn’t it be great to be protected from all annoying callers and telemarketers that the other users of GrandCentral have identified? The more users tell who identify annoying callers, the better the filter gets. Just go to “Settings” and click on “Phone Spam” and you can choose to use the GrandCentral filters and either block these callers completely or send them to SPAM voicemail.”

  • poushag

    Jason,
    I find it unbelieveable how lacking the market is in offering call filtering services for end users. I found your posting using Google and I think GrandCentral is exactly what I need. Every week I get 20 or 30 calls coming in from the same set of phone numbers. We let all the callers we cannot identify go through the machine now but they still keep calling. We get many more calls from them than from people we know. Could you please invite me to join GrandCentral? (I hope you can get my email address from this account. If not, then I guess we can just work it out here in this thread.) Thanks, Andrew

  • Andrew,
    Unfortunately I do not have an invite for GrandCentral – I’m in Canada, and GrandCentral is only offered in the US right now. 🙁

  • will

    There is in the UK http://www.callblocker.co.uk/ so there should be somthing by now in Canada, best of luck, I don’t have any relationship with these people, and havent got one yet – although I am considering it too.

    Mind you I wouldn’t tell callers the actual number to press, I’d put it to be something like press the first digit of our house number, so even more scammers might get stopped in their tracks.