Robocalls are out of control. Is a new mandated technology helping?

Marguerite Reardon | CNET.Com

Troy Warren for CNT #Technology

The deadline to implement the Stir/Shaken tech that’s designed to curb the flood of annoying and costly robocalls has come and gone. What’s next?

Millions of Americans don’t even bother answering calls from unfamiliar or blocked numbers for fear a call might be from an illegal robocaller. Many hoped that would change with a June 30 deadline from the FCC that required voice providers to implement technology to force callers to identify themselves. 

The US Federal Communications Commission’s deadline to implement technology to beat back those annoying robocalls went into effect earlier this summer. As of June 30, every major voice provider in the states, including phone companies AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile and cable provider Comcast, is required to implement a technology called Stir/Shaken designed to curb the tide of spam calls.

But experts say the battle to end robocalls isn’t over.

“Stir/Shaken has shut down one avenue,” said Clayton LiaBraaten, senior advisory board member at Truecaller, which makes a spam-blocking and caller ID app. “But it’s making already very capable criminals even more sophisticated and sinister in their scams.”

The hope is that Stir/Shaken will finally curb the flood of spam calls involving health-related scams, expiring car warranties that don’t exist, and fake banks offering bogus interest-rate discounts for credit cards. For years, the scourge of illegal robocalls has plagued the public. It’s the No. 1 consumer complaint and a top priority at the FCC.

US consumers have received just under 22 billion robocalls, or calls made by automated dialers with recorded messages, in the first five months of the year, on pace to hit over 52 billion robocalls for the year, according to YouMail, a company specializing in blocking robocalls.

In addition to being annoying, these calls are costly. Nearly 60 million Americans say they’ve fallen victim to a phone scam in the past year, like the calls purporting to be from the IRS or from a company inquiring about an expiring warranty on a nonexistent car, according to a report from Truecaller. In total, Americans have been swindled out of nearly $30 billion over the past 12 months, according to the survey conducted by TrueCaller and The Harris Poll. 

To be fair, not all robocalls are bad or annoying. Some businesses and public entities use robocalls to communicate important information. For example, your pharmacy may use an automated recording to tell you your prescription is ready to be picked up, or your kids’ school may use one to alert you about a snow day. These are legitimate robocalls, and they require that consumers sign up to receive them.  

Then there are the illegal robocallers. Because robocalls are cheap to make, they’ve been exploited by scammers all over the world, who use them to defraud billions of dollars from Americans every year. The problem has gotten so bad that many of us don’t answer the phone when it rings, especially if it’s an unfamiliar number on the caller ID. All too often, scammers disguise their phone numbers to trick people into answering.  

That’s where Stir/Shaken, which requires voice providers to verify where calls are coming from, comes in. To help you get a handle on what the June 30 deadline has meant so far and what’s next in the effort to stamp out robocalls, CNET has put together this FAQ.

What’s Stir/Shaken?

Stir/Shaken is a technology that ensures calls traveling through phone networks have their caller ID “signed” as legitimate by originating carriers and validated by other carriers before the calls reach you. In short, the technology authenticates a phone call’s origin and makes certain the information on the caller ID matches.

What’s ‘caller ID spoofing’? 

Spoofing is when callers disguise their identity by deliberately falsifying the information transmitted to your caller ID display. Scammers do this to make calls less easily traceable. Also, by using so-called neighbor spoofing, which makes it appear as though the number is a local one that you may already know or trust, scammers try to trick you into picking up a call.   

Is spoofing illegal? 

Under the Truth in Caller ID Act, the FCC’s rules prohibit any person or entity from transmitting misleading or inaccurate caller ID information with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongly obtain anything of value. Spoofing isn’t illegal if there’s no intent to cause harm.  

Illegal spoofers can face fines of up to $10,000 per violation of the law.  

Spoofing that’s intended to hide identity can be permitted under certain circumstances. For example, law enforcement agencies working on cases, victims of domestic violence, or doctors wishing to discuss private medical matters may all be exempt from these rules.   

What’s the Traced Act? How will that stop robocalls? 

The Traced (Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence) Act of 2019, makes compliance with the Stir/Shaken technology mandatory for all voice service providers. 

The law directed the FCC to come up with rules to require voice providers to implement the technology within 18 months. 

What was the June 30 deadline about?

The FCC set a deadline of June 30 for companies that provide phone service to implement Stir/Shaken. Phone companies also had to publish robocall prevention strategies in a public database. 

What’s happened since June 30? Has the deadline done anything to slow robocalls?

Experts like LiaBraaten say they’re still analyzing the data to see whether Stir/Shaken has made a dent. 

“The early indications are that while we’re seeing less ‘neighbor’ spoofing, we’re not seeing an overall decrease in spam calls,” he said.

LiaBraaten explained that scammers are still using numbers that may not match a recipient’s area code. The real question is whether people will still answer these calls, even if it doesn’t look like the calls are coming from a neighbor or someone in their area code. 

But he and others say it’s likely any decrease in robocalls initially will be just a blip as criminals adapt and find new methods. The sad truth is that making these calls is cheap and scamming people is lucrative. 

“It ends up being a game of whack-a-mole,” FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said in an interview with CNET in May. “So the long-term solution is still difficult.”

Are all carriers required to use Stir/Shaken?

Previously, the FCC had given small providers, those with fewer than 100,000 subscribers, until June 30, 2023, to implement Stir/Shaken. The extension would allow smaller providers to evaluate the implementation costs and plan deployment. But the FCC said in April that there’s evidence a large volume of illegal robocalls are coming from a subset of smaller providers, so the agency has proposed bumping up the deadline for these carriers by a full year.   

What’s the government been doing to stop illegal robocalls?

The Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission and the FCC have worked together to combat robocalls. In March 2020, the DOJ won an injunction against two internet telephone providers that allegedly transmitted hundreds of millions of calls to consumers. 

The FCC has stepped up its enforcement, sending cease-and-desist letters to carriers that facilitate scam calls and imposing fines on illegal robocallers. In one case, the FCC fined Texas telemarketers $225 million for spoofing roughly 1 billion robocalls. 

What’s next in the fight to end robocalls?

Lawmakers in Congress are proposing legislation to impose stiffer penalties on illegal robocallers and fraudsters. Regulators are vowing to step up enforcement. 

LiaBraaten says Stir/Shaken will push more illegal robocallers outside the US, where a significant number of robocalls already originate. Combatting this problem will require more cooperation among international carriers and regulators, which he admits is no easy task. But he thinks world leaders, international regulators, and carriers throughout the world will be motivated to work together.

“That’s a tall order trying to get a bunch of multilateral agreements in place,” he said. “But this isn’t just an American problem. It’s a global problem. People are being defrauded all over the world.” 

In Other NEWS


By Troy Warren

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Posts