Jonathan Spalter

Bringing the Fight to Illegal Robocallers: All Hands on Deck

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell made history with the first-ever phone call. When he shouted into a mouthpiece to his assistant: “Mr. Watson, come here—I want to see you,” he launched the global communications and information revolution that has changed our lives—mostly for the better.

But, I doubt even Dr. Bell could have anticipated that one day, criminals would try and turn his miraculous invention into a tool to proliferate the unwanted and illegal robocalls that today scam, spoof and torment millions of vulnerable phone customers.

How bad is it?

The chances are good that at some point today you will receive a call you either do not recognize or that looks like it is from a number you almost (kind of) think you know. According to YouMail, there were approximately 2.5 billion illegal robocalls in March 2019. The Federal Communications Commission estimates these calls cost consumers at least $3 billion per year.

The robocall epidemic has reached crisis level. If left unchecked, it will slowly but surely erode the confidence of consumers and businesses that rely on our communications networks.

The broadband industry is stepping up with major investments and cutting-edge technology to stomp out illegal and unwanted calls, and we are getting valuable reinforcement from federal and state policymakers, regulators and law enforcement agencies who are bringing essential new tools to the robocall war.

Call Authentication and Verification

Companies of all types and sizes are actively deploying call authentication and verification technologies, commonly referred to as STIR/SHAKEN, that will substantially diminish the ability of illegal robocallers to disguise themselves as legitimate (so-called spoofing) and signal to consumers whether (or not) to answer a call. The technology will also allow carriers to more accurately identify the original source of a call, which in turn will improve call traceback efforts.

Call Tracing and Law Enforcement

Speaking of traceback, USTelecom leads the Industry Traceback Group, a SWAT team of providers across the wireline, wireless, VoIP and cable industries who collaborate to trace the source of illegal robocalls and coordinate with federal and state enforcement agencies to bring perpetrators to justice. Teaming up with call blocking innovators like YouMail and Nomorobo, we have reduced the time it takes to trace illegal robocalls from weeks to days—sometimes even hours.

As the FCC’s chief technology officer and enforcement bureau chief noted in recent letters encouraging participation in our traceback group, “neither government, nor industry, without the active assistance of the other, can hope to stem the flood of scam calls plaguing consumers across the country.”

Tools for Consumers

Hundreds of apps are available today for consumers to block illegal or unwanted robocalls on their smartphones and voice providers are increasingly integrating these tools into their networks.

More and more USTelecom members are developing and deploying their own robocall prevention tools too. AT&T’s “Call Protect” service automatically blocks suspected fraudulent calls. Verizon provides a Spam Alerts service for wireline customers and free spam alerting and call blocking tools to wireless customers. CenturyLink, Windstream, Frontier, Consolidated and others are deploying tools across their TDM and IP networks, including “anonymous call rejection” and “no solicitation” services.

Partnering With Government

Our partners in government are stepping up with powerful new rules to beat back the robocall threat. The Senate recently passed the TRACED Act, adding aggressive criminal penalties that could put robocall offenders where they belong—behind bars, and the House is pressing forward with robocall legislation of its own.

The FCC has taken an important step by allowing carriers to implement blocking of illegal and unwanted calls “by default” and to help consumers block calls not already on their personal contact list.

Fighting the unwanted robocall crisis is an arms race. On one side: a business model built on criminal activity that floods networks with unwanted calls and aggravates consumers, but evolving to avoid detection. On the other side: a growing partnership between innovators of all stripes who are developing blocking and verification technology and government officials who have said “enough.”

We’re in the early days, but help is on the way.

Note: This article originally appeared as an op-ed in Morning Consult. You can view it here.