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Why ​​STIR/SHAKEN Might Be a Real Solution to End the Robocall Nightmare

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“We’re not going to stop until we get robocallers, spoofers, and scammers off the line.” – FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

Oh Jessica, do you really mean it? Please don’t toy with us!

In a country bitterly divided across party lines, there is one thing every single tax paying citizen in this country can agree on: we really really hate robocallers. 

These robocallers may claim they are calling from a federal agency, or they may be scammers posing as Apple or Amazon. There are scams that try to illegally sell products like a new roof or a car warranty, while others will steal your identity or credit card information. It’s a daily disturbance that anyone with a phone is dealing with right now.  

And it’s not just the robocallers harassing people. We are also getting bombarded by spam texts. RoboKiller, a filtering app, said the number of spam texts that will be sent in the United States could be as high as 86 billion in 2021. That means each of the 290 million smartphone users in this country will receive 296 spam texts in 2021. 

Why are robocalls and spam texts at a historic high? According to Maggie Riordan, senior reporter at CNET, it’s because the illegal robocaller guys realized there are millions of dollars to be made here. While the majority of people ignore the calls or try to filter them through apps like Robokiller and Hiya, there are enough people getting scammed to make this a lucrative criminal scheme. 

The clever techniques of robocallers have evolved over the years, including spoofing area codes and prefixes to trick victims into thinking the calls are coming from people they know. 

And no one is spared this misery. Even congressmen and women have been interrupted by spam calls while Congress is in session. To say it is a modern nuisance would be an understatement. It’s more like a plague eroding our privacy and sanity. 

So now that we can all agree that robocalls are out of control, what is the government doing to address this scourge of daily disruption? How can we stop unwanted robocalls and texts once and for all?

The TRACED Act

In 2019 Congress passed the TRACED Act which went into effect in June 2021 for all major carriers. From the FCC site

“In the TRACED (Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence) Act, Congress gave the Federal Communications Commission new tools to fight unwanted, and often illegal, robocalls, the top consumer complaint reported to the FCC annually.

The FCC has worked hard to meet the TRACED Act’s deadlines and quickly provide Americans with new protections against unwanted robocalls.” 

Obviously, lucrative exploits like robocall abuse are not isolated to any country or region, so the TRACED Act gives more jurisdiction across borders to go after the parties instigating these crimes. 

The two main parts of the TRACED Act are:

Caller ID Authentication Tools

“Caller ID authentication allows voice service providers to verify that the caller ID information transmitted with a particular call matches the caller’s real number, which in turn helps to determine whether the call should be blocked or labeled. Widespread deployment of caller ID authentication will reduce the effectiveness of illegal spoofed caller ID, allow law enforcement to identify bad actors more easily, and better enable phone companies to block illegal calls before those calls reach consumers.”

The other part of the one-two punch is the STIR/SHAKEN caller identification framework

What the heck is STIR/SHAKEN? It sounds like instructions 007 would give the bartender on the yacht off the Mediterranean coast while on break from his latest mission.“

STIR/SHAKEN is a framework of interconnected standards. STIR/SHAKEN are acronyms for the Secure Telephone Identity Revisited (STIR) and Signature-based Handling of Asserted Information Using toKENs (SHAKEN) standards. This means that calls traveling through interconnected phone networks would have their caller ID “signed” as legitimate by originating carriers and validated by other carriers before reaching consumers. STIR/SHAKEN digitally validates the handoff of phone calls passing through the complex web of networks, allowing the phone company of the consumer receiving the call to verify that a call is in fact from the number displayed on Caller ID.”

In short, the STIR/SHAKEN technology essentially gives your carrier the teeth to go after the bad guys. It makes sure your carrier can authenticate a call and it gives them the authority under law to block the call.

So, is it working?

Maggie Riordan posed this very question to Brendan Carr of the FCC.

As Carr points out, it’s a challenging problem for many reasons. One of those reasons is that there are legitimate robocalls people need to receive from the drugstore, their child’s school, etc., so it’s important for the FCC not to go too far and block necessary robocalls. Of course, determining which calls are legitimate and which ones are illegal is not an easy task. 

STIR/SHAKEN “puts pressure on domestic carriers to increase their protected technology, create a database, and will likely push illegal domestic robocalls out of the country,” said Scott White, director of George Washington University’s cybersecurity program and cyber academy, in this interview.

Actions you can take today

Contact your provider to discuss issues you are experiencing. Verizon urges its customers to employ existing blocking options: For wireless customers, Verizon’s Call Filter app can help you avoid unwanted calls. Call Filter blocks potentially fraudulent calls by default, but you can also block unwanted or nuisance calls with the free Call Filter app. Upgrade to Call Filter Plus to identify unknown callers by name and customize your spam list and block list. For the home, Fios Digital Voice customers automatically get Spam Alerts for free, which warns of potential fraud calls, and can also opt in for Nomorobo through My Verizon, a free tool used to stop robocalls from ringing on your home phone.

Report spam calls: The Call Filter app allows wireless customers to report a number as spam. This information will help us improve our spam detection service.

From AT&T’s site:

  1. AT&T Call Protect gives wireless customers automatic fraud blocking and suspected spam alerts.
  2. Our global fraud team runs an additional program that blocks fraud calls to every type of AT&T phone service.

AT&T notes that STIR/SHAKEN is now boosting both programs with extra data for detection and accuracy.

Alex Quilici, the CEO of YouMail, a California-based developer of visual voicemail and Robocall blocking software said the company can match audio to find repeat offenders, but only when they leave a voicemail.

Unfortunately, when there is a lucrative avenue for criminals to make money, if you kick them out the door, they come back in through the window. “It’s a game of Whac-A-Mole,” said Paul Schmitt, a research computer scientist at the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute. “Robocallers will find other ways to do what they want to do.”

Robocalls reel in billions of dollars in profits every year and, according to CNBC, many have found ways to use artificial intelligence or data to create targeted lists for scamming.

Despite concerns about its effectiveness, STIR/SHAKEN is not worthless legislation, according to Scott White. The process can help companies and the government do better analytics and gather information to use for the next attack.

For more information on how to combat Robocalls, check out our article, How to Fight Back Against Robocalls.

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