Written: June 2022
I saw the following post on Twitter this morning, “Hello Amy from the dealer service center. I know you want me to know that my car warranty is about to expire, but Amy, I thought you knew that I don’t have a car, or a driver license to drive the car with the warranty that is about to expire. Thanks for calling though.” Twitter jokes aside, robocalls are a big pain for all of us. Fortunately, FCC and Congressional members get robocalls also. They are a huge waste of time for everyone, and the government is acting in a way I view as promising. First, an update on robocalls overall.
Consumers recognize robocalls and how to ignore them. Only 18% of unidentified calls and 9% of calls identified as spam get answered.[i] Spam calls typically last 45 seconds compared to legitimate calls from businesses which last almost three minutes on average.[ii] The math says spammers wasted a total of 651,176 minutes in 2020. October 2019 may be the peak with 190 million robocalls per day adding up to 5.7 billion calls for the year.[iii]
Since most consumers do not answer calls from unknown numbers, the scammers have developed spoofing technology which lets them show you an illegitimate calling number which looks like it is in your area code or local area. CNBC reported Americans lost nearly $13.4 million to coronavirus-related robocalls as of May 2020. Truecaller, a maker of a caller ID and spam blocking app, reported between mid-2019 and mid-2020, over 56 million Americans lost money to phone scams.[iv] The scammers are most successful when preying on seniors who may be technologically illiterate. AARP reported seniors lose an estimated $2.9 billion each year to financial scams.[v] More than half of seniors receive at least seven robocalls per week.[vi]
There are numerous apps available which claim to block spam calls. In the early days I found the Nomorobo app to be quite effective but not so lately. The FTC has a National Do Not Call Registry at www.donotcall.gov but it offers no immediate relief either. The problem has been spammers continue to innovate. The FCC voted to authorize carriers to block incoming calls. Some carriers, like AT&T, want to charge you a monthly fee to do the blocking. This turns off most consumers who don’t think they should have to pay for blocking and have the concern important legitimate calls may get blocked such as notice of a school closing due to weather.
Before I get to the impending government solution, let me explain the problem in a simplified manner. If you use AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, or Verizon and a friend or business uses the same carrier as you, calls go right through to the destination, or they get routed to you if the caller uses a different carrier. The problem is when the call originates from outside of the country or other unknown carrier, the call gets routed to the number the originator specifies, which may not be a legitimate caller. In other words, it is a number designed to look legitimate and trick you into answering the call. There is no way for the transferring carrier to know the call is not legitimate.
It has been a long time in the making, but our government may finally have a solution to the robocall/spam/scam/spoof calls. It is called STIR/SHAKEN or SHAKEN/STIR. At first blush, this may sound like the name was inspired by Ian Fleming’s character James Bond, who famously preferred his martinis “shaken, not stirred.” The STIR/SHAKEN or SHAKEN/STIR solution is a suite of technical protocols and procedures which are designed to combat the call spoofing.
The protocols are very technical. At a high level, what they do is require the originator of a call to register themselves through a set of steps which enable them to establish their legitimacy. If they do not follow the tedious steps outlined by the protocols, their calls will be blocked. All the steps need to be in place by the end of this month, June 30, 2022. There is no guarantee the new solution is going to work. So far, the bad guys have been able to work around blocking attempts like what some of the sanctioned countries in the world have been using to work around the sanctions. I may be proven wrong, but I believe the government’s technical solution will at a minimum provide a large decrease in robocalls.
For those readers anxious to know what the protocols stand for, here goes. STIR is short for Secure Telephony Identity Revisited. It consists of a series of technical standards developed by a Working Group of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The IETF is the group which developed the standards which make the Internet work the same all over the world. SHAKEN is short for Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using toKENs. This one contains a bit of a butchering of the English language. SHAKEN consists of a suite of guidelines for public switched telephone networks which do not comply with STIR.
Whether you call them robocallers, spammers, scammers, or spoofers, they are a major problem and the government, FCC and FTC, have been flooded with complaints. If STIR/SHAKEN work, noncompliance will become a big problem for the bad guys including big fines and likely lawsuits. Let’s root for the g
[i] Moshe Beauford, “The State of Robocalls in 2022,” GETVOiP (2022), https://getvoip.com/blog/2021/04/14/robocall-statistics/#:~:text=(RoboKiller),over%20190%20million%20per%20day.
[iv] “The World’s Best Caller Id and Spam Blocking App,” truecaller (2022), https://www.truecaller.com/
[v] Beauford, “The State of Robocalls in 2022”.