Insights & Resources5 min read

The Light at the End of the Robocall Tunnel

Illegal robocalls are wreaking havoc on the telecommunications industry today- SHAKEN/STIR aims to change that.

Fiona McDonnell
Issues with Robocalling

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The Rise in Robocalling

In 2019, 58.5 billion robocalls were made, an increase of 22 percent from 2018. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is aware of the robocalling problem- it’s their number one complaint and the problem is only getting worse, with robocalls making up around 50 percent of all calls in 2019.

Where did robocalling start?

The reason for the increase dates back 100 years to the 1920s when phone calls were routed through operators. As the telecommunication infrastructure scaled and people realized they could insert automation into the routing process, they used mechanical switches for routing. The switches worked by relying on tones that were delivered over the same audio channel for speech. In the 1950s, tones were used, but if you could identify the tones, you had the ability to make free phone calls. So, the very first hackers, known as phreakers, took advantage of the fact that the entire system was based on tones and if you knew the right tones, you could connect phone calls.
As of late, the biggest reason robocalls have exploded is that the cost of making phone calls on the public telephone network is declining and the technology that is needed to make these robocalls is becoming more widely available. Another reason for the increase is that people are starting to realize that the calls they are getting from unknown numbers are actually robocalls, and they are therefore not answering them. As the public becomes more educated and doesn’t answer the phone, there has to be more call attempts using different mechanisms in order for those scammers to reach the same number of people.

How can we fix the robocalling problem?

Technology caused this problem, and it will take a variety of technological solutions to fix it.
Everyone recognizes that something needs to be done and so industry experts have developed a new technology standard called Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs (SHAKEN)/ Secure Telephony Identity Revisited (STIR). SHAKEN/STIR is essentially about restoring trust in the system by creating a mechanism by which you can validate that the person is who they say they are. However, SHAKEN/STIR requires IP interconnection, which is neither a standard nor mandated by the FCC. The majority of the telephone networks today still operate using SS7, creating a gap in the effectiveness of SHAKEN/STIR.

Solving the IP Interconnection Problem is Critical

The FCC and others are saying the robocalling problem is being solved, but the reality is that unless they solve the IP interconnection issue, it’s not actually solving the entire problem. Many of the few licensed IP-native operators in the United States are leading the charge, participating in Industry Standards Group and the FCC to ensure that SHAKEN/STIR will actually work. These companies are pushing for increased IP interconnection in the hope of seeing a shift to a model where legacy providers are now required to bring their infrastructure into the 21st century in order to have compatibility with IP and in turn, the SHAKEN/STIR framework.

TRACED Act

Fortunately, the telecommunications industry is actively looking for solutions to the robocalling problem. Congress has passed the TRACED Act, which directed the FCC to designate a single consortium to process private industry traceback efforts. The Commission has designated U.S. Telecom to direct the Industry Traceback Group (ITG). The ITG aims to be a neutral coordination platform for multiple service providers to trace and identify the source of illegal robocalls. The overall goal of the group is to protect voice networks and consumers from fraudulent, abusive, and/ or unlawful robocalls.
The ITG works by coordinating with federal and state law enforcement agencies to identify providers who are non-cooperative. Once these providers are identified, enforcement action can be taken.
The system starts with the terminating provider that possesses evidence of suspicious traffic. This call is then traced back through various networks until it either:
Reaches a non-responsive provider. Identifies the originator of the suspicious call.
The traceback is done using a secured portal that is managed by USTelecom.
The SHAKEN/STIR solution requires widespread provider adoption to be successful, and until we have mass compliance, illegal robocalls will still get through without validation. Network limitations and other roadblocks stand in the way, and we must clear these hurdles to ensure compliance by all voice providers. As big carriers continue to partake in the ITG and implement SHAKEN/STIR and more people block unverified calls, these small operators will have trouble keeping up. Large carriers must help smaller ones make strides toward SHAKEN/STIR compliance if caller ID authentication is to be implemented across all provider networks.

Looking into the Future

We may have a long way to go before we can put a stop to robocalling, but SHAKEN/STIR and other TRACED Act provisions are a promising start. With improved legislation, an authentication trust anchor and the help of a vast ecosystem of industry experts, we are laying the foundation for the future of robocall prevention and remediation.
To tackle the entire problem companies need to have a no-tolerance approach to spam and fraudulent activities while also working hard to keep illegal robocalls off private, global networks. True obliteration of the problem requires pushing the IP transition to further protect consumers. We urge the industry to actively participate in rating and routing groups that advocate for more direct IP routing in national databases, attempting to help smaller operators whose calls must traverse the TDM.
The problem is going to get worse before it gets better. But, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. If you’d like to learn more about SHAKEN/ STIR, or the ITG don’t hesitate to reach out to our team of experts.
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