After a brief respite during the early months of the pandemic, the scourge of annoying robocalls has returned. However, later this year, a new prevention program developed by the Federal Communications Commission — which went into effect this week — may begin to provide some relief.
The “Stir/Shaken” program is a set of technical standards that mobile carriers must adopt to help prevent call “spoofing,” a tactic used by robocallers to make an incoming call appear to be from your area code so you’ll be more likely to pick it up. Robocalls from spoof numbers aren’t just annoying; they can also be dangerous, as they can defraud people of money or sensitive personal information.
Robocalls from spoofed numbers aren’t just annoying; they can also be dangerous, as they can defraud people of money or sensitive personal information like Social Security numbers.
Carriers are required to certify, with varying levels of confidence, that calls are coming from the numbers displayed on caller ID under the Stir/Shaken protocol. The deadline for most major carriers to implement the standards was Wednesday, and all of them have stated that they will comply.
The idea is that if your wireless carrier receives an inbound call without a certification indicating that the number is legitimate, it will be able to block it before your phone even rings.
“While there is no silver bullet in the endless fight against scammers, Stir/Shaken will turbo-charge many of the tools we use in our fight against robocalls,” FCC acting chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement Wednesday.
However, don’t get your hopes up just yet. According to experts, Stir/Shaken will not be an automatic fix for the millions of robocalls that are made each month in the United States.
For one thing, until September 28, carriers will not begin blocking calls based on the Stir/Shaken verification information. Meanwhile, according to Ed Fox, chief technology officer at network services firm MetTel, they’ll collect data on which calls are certified and which aren’t in order to avoid blocking calls that people actually want to receive. Carriers, for example, don’t want you to miss an automated message from your hairstylist reminding you of an upcoming appointment.
Until then, when receiving a call, some carriers’ customers may see an indicator that the number has been verified (or not), allowing them to decide whether or not to pick up.
Carriers have “had to come up with a mitigation plan that hopefully prevents blocking legitimate calls,” Fox said. “There will be a lot of challenges, but toward the end of October, we’ll see significant drops in some of that robocalling.”
While major carriers have implemented Stir/Shaken, the FCC has given carriers with 100,000 or fewer subscribers a two-year extension to adopt the standards, allowing bad actors to continue spoofing calls while they wait. According to Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail, a company that tracks robocalls and offers a call blocking app for consumers, some small carriers have other robocall mitigation plans to prevent outgoing scam calls from their network, but they may not work as well as adopting the new standards.
Another potential stumbling block: bad actors could simply buy legitimate phone lines that are “verified” by carriers and use them to make robocalls. While this would necessitate more effort on the part of bad actors — and thus be used less frequently than existing “spoofing” methods — it could result in more dangerous robocalls, according to Quilici.
For example, if a call appears to be verified and the caller claims to be a representative of a bank or a large retailer, the recipient may be more likely to believe them and provide personal information.
“I think people are going to be really disappointed to find out that really what’s happened here is a speed bump, not a wall” for bad actors, Quilici said.