Could consumers dream about one day actually being able to pick up their phones and answer a call from a number they don't recognize?
Ok, we can dream. And maybe, we might even discover that a new effort to crack down on ridiculous robocalls could prove to be a real game changer.
For years, we've been frustrated by unwanted robocalls hitting our phones. We could ignore the call or perhaps sign up for a robocall-blocking app or a "Do Not Disturb" option.
How will consumers be protected from spoofed calls?
Now, finally, major U.S. voice service providers are required to use tech-savvy caller authentication to identify calls and reassure consumers that a phone call is real – and not spoofed to appear to be coming from a local area code or well-known business or agency.
Something, after all, has to be done to stop the con artists from spoofing the phone numbers of the Internal Revenue Service, the Social Security Administration, Amazon, Chase or another big-name bank.
Going forward, consumers are more likely to see a check mark or other identification on their mobile phones to indicate that the phone number on that call is accurate, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
Caller ID authentication – which was to be in place for big carriers by June 30 – makes it easier for phone companies to block illegal robocalls in the first place or label them as likely spam.
"We believe this is the most meaningful regulatory action ever taken to attack robocalls," said Teresa Murray, who directs the Consumer Watchdog office for U.S. PIRG, a nonprofit advocacy group.
"The FCC isn't messing with excuses," she said.
The law applies, she said, to wireless carriers, VoIP lines and old-fashioned landlines.
The FCC, she said, has told providers who have older technology that they need to either upgrade their networks to IP or Internet Protocol, or they need to figure out a way to take better care of their customers by filtering out spoofed calls.
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"If the display says the call is coming from a 313 area code," she said, "it should actually be coming from a 313 area code, not someplace in the Philippines or wherever."
All robocalls won't end. You can still get a robocall when school's canceled or delayed due to weather. And you can get a robocall to alert you to pick up your prescriptions or to discover that your airline flight is delayed.
The law isn't targeting legitimate robocalls.
The bad actors are who we're hoping to see drop out of the picture. Fraudulent robocall schemes end up costing Americans about $10 billion annually, according to the FCC.
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How many robocalls are we getting?
Robocalls reached out to consumers 22 billion times in the first five months of 2021, according to the call blocking app called YouMail, which forecasts that robocalls are on pace to hit 52 billion this year.
The good news is that some of these robocalls could be trending down already. Consumers received a bit less than 4 billion robocalls in May, down 9.9% from April, according to YouMail. (The figures are determined by extrapolating from the robocall traffic attempting to get through to YouMail's millions of active users. The YouMail estimate covers all phones.)
YouMail CEO Alex Quilici said far fewer spoofed emails are likely to get through, thanks to the new protocol, dubbed STIR/SHAKEN, to authenticate phone numbers.
STIR/SHAKEN refers to the Secure Telephone Identity Revisited and the Signature-based Handling of Asserted Information Using toKENs standards.
Every outgoing call is to go through a system that will check the customer and the number to verify who is making the call.
Even so, some smaller voice carriers and others do not have to implement the change until possibly a year or two from now. And there's the question of how scammers might adapt to the new system.
If a con artist is using a verified phone number where the number matches the display, Murray noted, that call could still get through even if someone is trying to scam you.
"There is concern that some bad guys might use computer-generated numbers, such as Google voice numbers," she said. "The numbers would be verified but they could still have bad intentions."
How are phone carriers responding?
Many carriers are on board. T-Mobile announced June 30 that it officially filed for a certification from the FCC on its implementation of the STIR/SHAKEN standards. T-Mobile also offers a free Caller ID called Scam Shield to customers.
AT&T, which also has implemented the protocol and other services, said it is now blocking or labeling suspected spam at a rate of more than 1 billion calls per month.
Verizon, which said in December that the anti-robocall measures were already in place, noted in late June that it has protected customers from "more than 10 billion unwanted calls – and counting."
The FCC is making much of its big push to crack down on robocalls.
In April, the FCC launched its Robocall Mitigation Database, where voice service providers must tell the FCC what they're doing to fight robocalls.
The government, the phone industry and consumers all have jobs to do to shut down the scammers.
“Unwanted robocalls are not only a nuisance, but they also pose a serious risk to consumers who can inadvertently share sensitive, personal information in response to bad actors’ malicious schemes," according to acting FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement earlier in 2021.
She noted that robocalls remain the top complaint that the FCC receives from consumers.
The FCC announced in March that it sent cease-and-desist orders to six lesser-known voice providers that consistently violated FCC guidelines for autodialed and prerecorded voice message calls.
Some of those robocalls had been associated with, according to the FCC, "COVID-19 scam calls, Social Security Administration and Internal Revenue Service imposter scam calls, Apple imposter scam calls, electric utility disconnection scam calls, and fraudulent sweepstakes winner calls."
Others involved fraudulent calls related to student loan offers, as well as discounts and upgrades for services through AT&T and DirecTV.
Rosenworcel said there is "no silver bullet in the endless fight against scammers." But she said in a statement June 30 that the STIR/SHAKEN system will "turbocharge" the effort to combat robocalls.
What should consumers do?
Some tips remain when it comes to fighting fraud:
It's still a good idea to let calls go to voicemail if you don't recognize a number.
If you are getting a good deal of illegal robocalls in the future, U.S. PIRG recommends that you contact your carrier and ask whether the company is compliant with the STIR/SHAKEN law.
Ask your carrier what services you can opt in to to reduce the number of unwanted calls. Murray noted that some companies allow you to block suspected scam calls and send them directly to voicemail. Others allow you to block calls with no caller ID and send them directly to voicemail. Ask what your provider offers at no charge.
If a caller claims to be from Amazon or your local utility company, politely hang up. Then call back using a valid number from your bill or their website.
Never, ever confirm or provide personal information to any caller you weren't expecting. "Not your name, your ZIP code, how you like your coffee ... nothing," Murray said.
Never press one or a button to stop receiving calls. Just hang up.
Hang up if someone suggests that you can pay a bill or try to correct a problem by putting money on a gift card. It's a scam.
On your outbound voicemail message, Murray said, don't provide your full name.
"No sense in giving a scammer more information than they may have had," she said.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Robocalls: New FCC rule kicks in, making it easier to block scam calls