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Robocalls are worse than ever, but help is on the way

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Robocalls are the worst, but new laws and technologyies could help end them.
Robocalls are the worst, but new laws and technologyies could help end them.

It’s not just you: Nobody is safe from robocalls. Not even a member of the Federal Communications Commission — in the middle of his first FCC meeting.

“During the meeting, my phone went off and rang,” FCC commissioner Brendan Carr said at an event Friday at the the commission’s Washington headquarters. “It was, of course, a robocall.”

This plague persists — Carr’s fellow commissioner Mignon Clyburn cited the robocall-blocking firm YouMail’s estimate of 2.7 billion robocalls nationwide in February — because it’s so cheap to spam people’s phones. Technological fixes exist, but many customers can’t use them, don’t know about them or have to pay extra for them.

“Robocalls are out of control, and we have the consumer complaints to prove it,” Clyburn said. The result we experience on a daily or weekly basis: “The phone rings. You pick it up, then you notice that distinct pause. Then you sigh.”

And while a more ambitious technological solution may bring a semblance of order to internet-routed calls, it won’t do so quickly or, at first, reliably.

Blame the internet

As a lineup of speakers testified Friday, the same revolution in internet calling that’s effectively zeroed out the cost of long-distance and international calls has also slashed robocalling expenses for scam operations, many hosted overseas, that don’t even pretend to honor the federal Do Not Call registry.

“It is extremely cheap to make phone calls,” said Kevin Rupy, vice president of law and policy at the trade group USTelecom, during a panel. “We’re talking fractions of a penny.”

Meanwhile, robocallers have mastered spoofing Caller ID. This makes the numbers shown on your phone’s screen a weak signal and impedes tracing back a robocall through various services and gateways.

“Spoofing is the gasoline on the robocalling fire,” said Kristi Thompson, head of the telecommunications consumer division of the FCC’s enforcement bureau, during another panel. “It’s a laborious enforcement process. We have to send a daisy chain of subpoenas.”

Regulators and law-enforcement authorities have stepped up their actions. In November, the FCC voted to allowed phone carriers to block obviously invalid calls. For example, they can reject those from phone numbers that don’t originate calls — like the Internal Revenue Service’s helpline, a common tactic in tax scams.

The Federal Trade Commission, which co-hosted Friday’s event with the FCC, has also been suing more robocallers. In a prerecorded video, FTC acting chair Maureen Ohlhausen cited a record-breaking $280 million civil penalty in June 2017 against Dish Network (DISH).

But the case that led to that ruling began in 2009 and remains under appeal. And while Ohlhausen touted the more than $1.5 billion in judgments against robocallers, so far it’s collected only $121 million.

Apps to the rescue

You don’t have to wait for the government to ride to the rescue, but your self-help options vary on how you get your calling service and what provides it.

Wireless users can employ services offered by their carriers or install third-party apps — but differences persist between carriers and smartphone platforms.

For example, AT&T (T) and T-Mobile (TMUS) provide free spam-call-blocking apps, but Sprint (S) and Verizon (VZ) charge $2.99 a month for theirs.

And while the Google (GOOG, GOOGL) Phone app for Android automatically flags spam calls, Apple (AAPL) has left that work to third-party iOS developers. One complained at the FCC/FTC forum that many of his iPhone users were confused by the extra steps.

“The iPhone is a bit crippled,” said Alex Algard, CEO of the robocall-blocking firm Hiya.

Internet-calling services, such as those AT&T provides to its U-verse broadband subscribers and Verizon offers to Fios broadband customers, can also benefit from network call-filtering services.

But landline users of traditional copper-wire phone services get the least protection, although Verizon is testing a free spam-call-alert system for them.

The biggest customer hangup remains insufficient awareness of these countermeasures. “Many consumers don’t know that there are more tools available today,” FTC commissioner Terrell McSweeny summed up in a speech at the forum.

Authentication as an answer

Friday’s speakers agreed on the need to authenticate internet calls in much the same way that web sites use digital certificates to prove their identities.

“Rolling out call authentication is, I think, going to make the biggest difference in the government’s ability to stamp out illegal, abusive robocalling,” the FCC’s Thompson said.

The industry is moving to adopt two standards whose acronyms evoke James Bond: SHAKEN (“Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using toKENs”) and STIR (“Secure Telephony Identity Revisited”).

As an October 2016 report from the FCC’s Robocall Strike Force explains, these two standards would have telecom firms apply digital signatures to calls that they place or connect, which services on the receiving end could then weigh when computing whether to complete the call or warn the callee.

Government investigations would benefit too: “It would allow enforcement to trace back and find these people much more easily,” observed Sherwin Siy, a special counsel at the FCC’s wireline-competition bureau.

But first carriers will have to deploy these standards. In a conversation after the forum, Jim McEachern, a consultant with the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions, an industry group working on SHAKEN and STIR, cautioned that even when this rollout happens starting later this year, you shouldn’t expect your phone app to make the correct call about the validity of each incoming call.

Too many companies and connections will be involved for these systems to yield a conclusive verdict every time, and some spam calls will get through.

In those cases, you’ll have to fall back on the advice FCC chair Ajit Pai offered in opening remarks Friday: “Just hang up.”

(Verizon is the parent company of Yahoo Finance.)

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Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.