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How FCC tries to fight robocalls


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From fake social security calls to scammers impersonating Apple or Amazon, anyone with a cellphone or landline is no stranger to robocalls.

Robocall fraudsters have been stealing voicemails and phones across America for decades. Between June 2020 and 2021 these scams affected more than 59 million people who lost a combined $29.8 billion, according to phone number identification app Trucaller. Robocallers can sell legal products, such as new roofing or car warranties through illegal channels. Others will steal credit cards or your social security number.

The Federal Communications Commission has ordered voice service providers to use STIR/SHAKEN to establish caller authentication standards. This is to address this problem that has been a longstanding one. The FCC required large carriers like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile to implement the standards by June 30, though smaller carriers, with under 100,000 customers, have an extension.

Voice service providers are required to simultaneously submit a plan that highlights their robocall mitigation efforts within a newly created database. The plan must be submitted by voice service providers within the first week of September 28. Otherwise, carriers may not accept calls from these providers.

STIR/SHAKEN provides a solid start towards ending the ever-evolving problem with robocalls. While updates can slow down fraudsters, experts believe they will never disappear.

Paul Schmitt (a University of Southern California researcher in computer science), said that it’s “a game of Whac-A-Mole”. Robocallers will discover other ways of doing what they desire.

What are STIR/SHAKEN and how do they work?

STIR/SHAKEN is a set of rules that require voice providers to verify the identity of callers to the displayed number.

Attestation refers to the process of establishing the legitimacy and identity of the caller. This acts as a virtual signature that indicates how certain a provider can allow a particular caller to use the number. The provider’s information about the caller is broken down into three levels.

STIR/SHAKEN is a pressure on domestic phone companies to improve their protection technology and create a database. This will help eliminate illegal domestic robocalls from the country, according to Scott White, who directs George Washington University’s cybersecurity program.

Although it makes it more difficult to use fake caller ID information or spoof calls to con you, it doesn’t make it impossible. Although the technology confirms that the actual number shows up, scammers may alter the numbers. This system is not compatible with landlines.

Josh Bercu, vice-president of policy and advocacy for USTelecom (a trade organization representing telecom companies), stated that some providers sign calls using the highest attestation, without performing due diligence. Providers could be unable to sign or testify if they are found guilty by the industry.

Bercu said, “The industry hates such calls.” “We are committed to protecting our subscribers. The impact of this effort is already beginning to show.

Fighting evolving robocalls

While STIR/SHAKEN can help crack down at home, the FCC has little jurisdiction abroad where many calls originate. Although the FCC can collaborate with other international agencies to stop scammers, certain countries will not cooperate. Robocalls make billions every year. Many have discovered ways to harness artificial intelligence and data to build targeted lists to scammers.

Many overseas fraudsters will make calls to a set of numbers and then vanish. White explained that domestic fraudsters may take advantage of recent changes in order to transfer operations overseas, where supervision is lower. While gateway carriers provide the primary entry to the U.S., most of these companies operate from outside the U.S.

White stated that the greatest problem with robocalls is their rapid evolution.

Next steps to ending robocalls

Robocalls are decreasing. In August, Americans received roughly 4.1 billion robocalls, down 4.4% from July, which decreased 4.8% from June, according to data from YouMail, a company that creates robocall blocking software.

YouMail is among several companies that provide spam-blocking software, including RoboKiller, Truecaller and Hiya. Alex Quilici of YouMail said that the company is able to match audio in order to identify repeat offenders. But, only if they leave voicemails.

Many large telecom companies provide their customers with their own robocall blockers, including personal blocking lists, caller identification, and number changes. Depending on the plan they have, some of these options may cost extra.

Verizon spokesperson stated that they recently started a social-media campaign in collaboration with an tech expert to identify robocalls. According to them, 500 million less calls are made per month due to efforts to combat robocalls. An AT&T spokesperson said the company labels 1 billion robocalls a month. T-Mobile verifies over 300 million calls each weekday according to a spokesperson.

Bercu, USTelecom’s vice president, works closely with providers and government to track down suspicious calls in order to stop scammers. Eric Burger is a Georgetown University research professor in computer science. He said that another step would be to get other countries signed onto STIR/SHAKEN.

White said that STIR/SHAKEN, despite concerns over its effectiveness, is still a valuable legislation. This process is useful for both the government and companies to do more analytics and collect information that can be used in the next attack.

He said, “The people complained and the government replied.” “This is what democracy should look like.”