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Robocalls have reached an epidemic level, with an alarming 26 billion in 2018 in the U.S. alone. Unwanted calls are the largest consumer complaint to the Federal Trade Commission (FCC). They report that they receive 200,000 complaints about robocalls each year.

In response, the FCC presented a proposal in May 2019 to allow the automatic blocking of robocalls. If the plan is approved, it may go into effect as early as the end of this year.

What Will This Mean To Phone Customers?

This gives telecom companies the authority they need to keep robocalls off their customers’ phones. Carriers will be allowed to apply robocall-blocking technologies automatically.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai explains:

“Allowing call blocking by default could be a big benefit for consumers who are sick and tired of robocalls.. By making it clear that such call blocking is allowed, the FCC will give voice service providers the legal certainty they need to block unwanted calls from the outset so that consumers never have to get them.”

Chairman Pai has launched several important public policy initiatives to help combat unlawful robocalls and malicious caller ID spoofing. The Commission under his leadership has also taken unprecedented enforcement actions to punish those who flout consumer protection laws.

How Will The Robocalls Be Blocked?

Phone companies have been working on techniques to block spam calls. However, they haven’t wanted to use them until FCC regulators approved their use.

They also are devising standards that will verify the owner of a phone number. This will cut down on the bad actors’ ability to use legitimate phone numbers for their scams. The Federal Communications Commission plans to put out a request for public comment on how these standards should be applied.

How Will Robocall Alerting & Blocking Actually Work?

In April 2019, some of the major telecom companies including Comcast, T-Mobile and Xfinity reported that they would be verifying phone calls between their networks. They will use a tool that alerts their customers when a human isn’t placing a call.

Most major phone carriers have also been developing and testing anti-robocall technology called STIR/SHAKEN. STIR (Secure Telephone Identity Revisited)/ SHAKEN (Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using toKENs) will stop spoofing which allows scammers to bypass Caller ID and make the call look like it’s coming from a local number.

The idea is that if someone sees a call coming from their local area code, that they’ll believe it’s legitimate and answer it. Spoofing also makes it difficult for the authorities to determine which robocalls are legitimate or not.

How Does STIR/SHAKEN Work?

STIR/SHAKEN uses digital certificates that are based on cryptography techniques, to ensure the calling number is secure.

Each telecom provider will have a digital certificate from a certificate authority who is trusted by other telephone service providers. The certificate technology enables the called party to verify that the calling number is accurate and hasn’t been spoofed.

Here’s how it would work according to a 2018 article in New York Magazine:

“Someone would place an outbound call. That call would contain a certificate verifying that the call is indeed coming from the number it claims to be coming from. The phone call is passed along to the incoming carrier (e.g., AT&T), which would then check the certificates public key against a heavily encrypted private key. A policy administrator, run by the telecom industry with oversight from the FCC, would be in charge of handing out certificates and making sure everything is on the level.”

What Should Phone Customers Do In The Meantime?

The FCC has posted the following consumer tips on their spoofing website:

  • Don’t answer calls from unknown numbers. Let them go to voicemail.
  • If the caller claims to be from a legitimate company or organization, hang up and call them back using a valid number found on their website or on your latest bill if you do business with them.
  • If you answer and the caller (often a recording) asks you to press a button to stop receiving calls, or asks you to say “yes” in response to a question, just hang up. Scammers often use these tricks to identify, and then target, live respondents, or to use your “yes” to apply unauthorized charges on your bill.
  • Be Aware: Caller ID showing a “local” number no longer means it is necessarily a local caller.
  • If you answer and the caller asks for payment using a gift card, it’s likely a scam. Legitimate organizations like law enforcement will not ask for payment with a gift card.
  • If you receive a scam call, file a complaint with the FCC Consumer Complaint Center by selecting the “phone” option and selecting “unwanted calls.” The data we collect helps us track trends and supports our enforcement investigations.
  • If you have lost money because of a scam call, contact your local law enforcement agency for assistance.
  • Ask your phone company if it offers a robocall blocking service. If not, encourage them to offer one. You can also visit the FCC’s website for more information about illegal robocalls and resources on available robocall blocking tools to help reduce unwanted calls.
  • Consider registering your telephone numbers in the National Do Not Call Registry. Lawful telemarketers use this list to avoid calling consumers on the list.

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