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Fake IRS scam calls can now be blocked

Ethan Wolff-Mann
Senior Writer

The IRS is frequently impersonated by scammers over the phone. (AP Photo/J. David Ake, File)

This week the Federal Communications Commission approved a new set of rules that would put an end to the onslaught of robocalls that has left more people unwilling to answer their phones. It is the first step in the agency’s war against robocallers.

By the FCC’s estimates, there are approximately 2.4 billion per month of these illegal robocalls and it is only getting worse. Robocallers are benefiting from today’s cheap tech that make it easier for them to scale up their scam.

The new FCC rules give telecommunication companies leeway to block calls they deem suspect, something that the industry has been very hesitant to do because it might lead to anticompetitive complaints and violate the FCC’s call completion rules that mandate dialed calls go through.

Armed with this “license to kill,” the phone industry now has the go-ahead to block numbers that have impossible digits (1-111-555-1111) for example, or movie 555 numbers), unused numbers, numbers not assigned to providers, or numbers that are used for incoming calls only.

“These calls are very likely to be illegal or fraudulent,” said FCC Chair Ajit Pai in the announcement of the rules’ adoption. “There’s no legitimate reason for anyone to spoof caller ID to make it seem as if he or she is calling from an unassigned or invalid phone number.”

A boon for one of the IRS’s fiercest battles

Most people would benefit from blocked calls, but perhaps no party more than the Internal Revenue Service, which has been plagued by a constant stream of robocallers who impersonate the agency. The IRS has numbers that it only uses for incoming calls, and under the new rule, any outgoing calls using those numbers can be reliably deemed as fraudulent and blocked.

The IRS is currently reviewing the FCC information, but it generally supports efforts to protect taxpayers from fraudulent calls and pervasive tax scams,” an agency spokesperson told Yahoo Finance.

Phone scammers have been a thorn in the agency’s side for years, a thorn that has festered as the scammers constantly shift their tactics. Frequently, scammers make calls out of the blue and aggressively demand that people pay up, often via gift cards, WesternUnion, and MoneyGram. The bullying tactics often involve threatening imminent consumers with arrests and the practices are often effective, despite their fishy nature.

According to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, over 10,000 victims have lost a collective $54 million between October 2013 and February 2017. This April, eight people were arrested for an IRS phone scam after they took $8.8 million from 7,000 victims.

The next steps

Identifying and being allowed to block calls is the first step, but actually blocking them is the next step. Industry trade groups, regulators, telecommunication carriers, and other stakeholders have worked for a few years now to put forth solutions, and one stands out: verified caller ID.

Like end-to-end encryption that’s become the standard for secure chat messaging (Apple iMessage, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Signal all use it), the industry is looking to roll out cryptographic keys for caller ID. In plain English, the outgoing call is designated a unique code, and the receiving phone decrypts that code and if it’s anything other than what it’s supposed to, the call is identified as spam.

If a call is identified as spam, the carrier can block the number if the consumer wishes — a process that will likely be ironed out in the next FCC open meeting in December. For now, industry eyes and hopeful consumers will turn to the open meeting for insight into exactly how long it will be before they can safely answer the phone again.

Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann. Confidential tip line: FinanceTips[at]oath[.com].

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