Is This Finally the End of Robocalls?

For the vast majority of us, robocalls and spam calls are part of our everyday life. In fact, there’s about a 50% chance it is a spam robocall when your phone rings.

According to data collected by Truecaller — a global call blocker app — the number of robocalls worldwide in 2018 has increased by a staggering 300%, with 74.01 billion calls being received by users. The data also emphasizes that Brazil has become the most spammed country in the world, with an average of 37.5 spam calls per month.

What Are Robocalls?

A robocall — a type of spam calls — is an auto-dialled call that delivers a pre-recorded message to your phone, either legitimately or illegitimately.

Some robo-callers can even mask their numbers using a technique called ‘spoofing’. This tactic makes callers falsely appear to be another number, fooling the Caller ID system. In other words, the phone number the receiver sees is not the real number of the caller.

Callers can also make the robocalls look like they are coming from familiar businesses, organisations, even friends or acquaintances, and this tactic is known as ‘neighbourhood spoofing’.

Though not all robocalls are scams and spam, with 63% being legitimate calls, the broadly-accepted definition of robocalls makes it hard to distinguish the two — and that makes tackling the issue from a government-perspective much harder, too.

The Growth of Robocalls – and Complaints

As the TNS points out, robocalls are becoming easier and cheaper to operate, particularly thanks to new technologies that allow us to make calls from our computer, like voice over internet protocol (VoIP). According to YouMail, another robocall-blocking service, they have recorded a surge in the number of robocalls, with almost 48 billion calls being made in the US in 2018, which is an increase of 56.8% compared to 2017.

Data showed that 37% of all robocalls were scams related to financial matters — health insurance, interest rate, student loans, tax, easy money, warranty, and business scams. The remaining 63% were legitimate, including telemarketing calls, reminders, and alerts.

Even in a time when almost everyone has Caller ID enabled on their phones, and more than 235 million numbers are listed on the national Do Not Call Registry, US citizens are still receiving an overwhelming amount of unwanted auto-dialled and prerecorded calls.

5.2 billion robocalls were recorded to have been made in the US in March 2019, according to YouMail. That is 168.8 million robocalls per day, meaning 7 million calls per hour, or two thousand calls per second, with an average of 15.9 calls per citizen. At this pace, Americans will receive somewhere between 62 billion to 75 billion robocalls in 2019 if no real action taken.

Why Have Robocalls Taken Over Your Phone?

The problem is that it is too easy to become a robocaller. Advanced automatic dialling systems make it so easy and cheap for small operations to generate large numbers of calls.

Anyone with a little technical knowledge and skills can run their own business at an extraordinarily low cost — a fraction of a cent if only the calls were answered. Robocalling computer programs can dial many phone numbers at once, and play a pre-recorded or artificial voice message to the receiver. Robocallers can just set up the program and let it run, calling from mobile phones, landlines, to businesses numbers, or even randomly. They are basically no entry barriers in this massive scam operation market.

Additionally, as robocallers can mask the true origins of their calls, the federal Do Not Call Registry does not work. That is to say, it is almost impossible to ignore the calls or identify who is actually calling.

Furthermore, this illegal business is very profitable to run, as a successful robocall scam can net millions of dollars. In 2018, Truecaller found that consumers lost nearly $9 billion to phone scams in the previous 12-month period.

As recently announced, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) fined a robocaller $82 million for illegal caller ID spoofing. This operation made over 21 million robocalls to market health insurance.

The First Step towards Stopping Unwanted Robocalls

US FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has urged major telephone service providers in the country and others to take actions and adopt systems such as call authentication system or SHAKEN/STIR to combat billions of “robocalls” and other nuisance calls received monthly by American consumers.

SHAKEN/STIR

SHAKEN/STIR is a framework of interconnected standards. SHAKEN, or Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using toKENs, is used to validate the right of the caller to utilise their phone numbers. STIR — an acronym for Secure Telephone Identity Revisited — is a call-certifying protocol.

This means that calls, when going through SHAKEN/STIR, would have their caller ID verified as legitimate or illegitimate by originating carriers, and validated by other carriers before reaching the receiver.

However, this is all just a beginning, as STIR may only be used to authenticate and validate the origin of the call for domestic calls. Also, this will only help to show illegal spoofing robocalls, rather than blocking all unwanted robocalls by itself.

“It may well be a beginning, but the beginning of the end of robocalls, that’s still quite a ways off,” says Brent Struthers, Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS).

Even though T-Mobile has taken the lead to be the first carrier deploying the system in the US, what’s really needed is for every carrier in the world to implement it. So much so, that all national phone calls will be authenticated. The next step would be to establish how to tackle the issue at an international scale.

The Bottom Line

Long before robocall operations became a thing, we have dealt with telemarketers and various phone scammers using the old copper-wire telephone system. Even when SHAKEN/STIR is implemented, fraud robocalls are not going to stop: they will continue developing and innovating. But as it becomes harder to get anyone’s phone to ring, the less money these robocalling schemes will make, the closer we get to the end of spammy robocalls..

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