When it comes to stopping robocalls, technological advances are a double-edged sword: while new technologies have created new ways to combat unwanted and fraudulent calls, they have also provided fraudsters new opportunities to work around existing consumer protections. In July, Chairman Wheeler called on telephone service providers to work collectively on multiple fronts to develop solutions to these problems, and the industry responded by forming a Robocall Strike Force. With this industry effort underway, we thought it was timely to outline some of these challenges and the types of solutions the Strike Force is considering.
Spoofing and Authentication
The increased use of internet protocols within phone networks has many upsides for consumers. For example, some VoIP systems may be capable of offering better voice quality or supporting robocall blocking services. But that technology can allow scammers to camouflage their real identity and location when they send a call into the phone network. This is often called “spoofing.” Spoofed phone calls are those that appear to be from legitimate callers (like the government or a family member) but are not. Many of us are familiar with spoofed emails, and the industry has made strides in combatting these messages. For example, to combat email spam and phishing, some email senders now validate their identity, and many ISPs automatically filter suspect emails. We need these kinds of protections for phone calls. Our phone system should be able to verify that callers are really who they say they are. A standardized authentication process will allow consumers to know which VoIP calls are camouflaged and those that are not, protecting them from malicious caller ID spoofing.
Robocall Blocking and Filtering
Currently, robust robocall blocking and filtering services are only available on some VoIP phone systems and as apps on smartphones. These pro-consumer services allow subscribers to choose for themselves which calls they want to receive, which calls to block, and/or which calls to redirect or “filter” to voicemail. The FCC has made clear that all phone companies can legally offer consumers these choices. The focus of both the Commission and industry is now on improving these offerings and increasing their availability.
Do Not Originate
Stopping unwanted calls is a simple idea but complex to accomplish. Many unwanted calls originate in other countries where the Commission’s jurisdiction to stop these fraudulent communications at the source is limited. If we cannot stop the calls from coming in, we can try to help networks identify which calls are not legitimate. It seems logical that, for example, calls appearing to be from a U.S. government agency that originate overseas are not legitimate and should be stopped – or perhaps the caller ID can be authenticated to tell consumers who the real caller is. One potential solution is to create a database of numbers that are often spoofed, including numbers used by/belonging to government, healthcare and financial institutions. For calls that can’t be authenticated, this “Do Not Originate” list, originally suggested by Chairman Wheeler in his letters to the carriers, might enable providers to recognize and stop calls that have a suspicious origin.
In addition to initiating the industry-led strike force, the FCC is taking steps to use technology and data to combat robocalls. For instance, following an FCC workshop on robocalls and spoofing last year, the FCC began regularly and proactively posting our data showing which phone numbers consumers complained about. These data have helped robocall blocking companies improve their systems. In May, we upgraded our data center, and we now refresh our unwanted call data daily. We continue to develop our data collection and data sharing abilities to empower consumers to help us uncover and go after fraudsters and to help carriers and apps block unwanted calls.
In cooperation with the industry-led strike force, the FCC is working hard to protect consumers from unwanted robocalls. Consumers who receive unwanted calls can file a complaint with the FCC and provide us with the phone number and any other key details about the call.