Starting next year, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile expect to be the first to activate a new national authentication system designed to stop fraudulent and unsolicited calls.
(TNS) — Finally, the big phone companies plan to do something major for us little people, rolling out a $100 million system that could eventually reduce the flood of unwanted robocalls to a trickle.
Those aggravating calls from phony IRS agents or the disembodied voice offering a “free’’ resort vacation won’t disappear instantly. But starting next year, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile expect to be the first to activate a new national authentication system designed to stop fraudulent and unsolicited calls. They’re already testing the system.
With other service providers, including Sprint, expected to follow, nearly 90 percent of U.S. phones — all mobile phones and about half the nation’s land lines — will be covered in two to five years under a system that’s been in the works for about three years.
“It won’t be a panacea,’’ said Jim McEachern, a senior technology consultant with the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions, the trade group that led the effort. “But it’s a really important tool that will make a difference over time.’’
Americans were bombarded in August alone with a record 148.8 million intrusive automated messages — per day — according to YouMail, a robocall blocking service that collects and analyzes data. That’s 1.6 calls a second, or an average of 13 calls per person per month, though many people get far more. It’s no wonder an increasing number of people let most of their calls go straight to voicemail.
The new system is called STIR/SHAKEN, a James Bond-esque acronym that stands for Secure Telephony Identity Revisited and Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs. In simple terms, it is aimed at stopping robocallers who use fake caller-ID numbers, often masked as local calls, to trick people into answering.
Phone calls typically pass through multiple carriers as they travel from caller to recipient. A caller’s phone provider knows something about the origin of the call and whether the caller ID is authentic. But until now, that provider had no secure way of passing the information along.
SHAKEN, as the industry refers to the system, provides a safe way to do that, using encrypted digital certificates for each call and a rating system that essentially identifies calls as good, questionable or likely fraudulent. The last phone company in the chain can take action and stop unwanted calls from getting through.
Calls with full approval under the rating system will go through. Dubious ones might not, based on complex algorithms involving a host of factors, including whether the call came in through an international gateway. For now, Canada is the only other country that will use SHAKEN.
Another red flag to the new system might be an extremely high volume of calls, coupled with a low percentage of answers on the other end. A single operation based in a Miami apartment with links to a Mexican call center, for instance, was able to make nearly 97 million calls in just three months in 2016 before the federal government shut it down and fined the owner a record $120 million.
Though phone companies have already rolled out blocking systems and other tools for consumers, the growing frustration over robocalls has prompted this new line of attack.
“We’re looking at the death of the phone if we don’t make the experience good again,’’ said Jonathan Nelson, director of product management for the call-blocking service Hiya, and a member of the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions’ subgroup on SHAKEN.
It’s gotten so bad that by 2019, nearly half of all calls made to cell phones are expected to be fraudulent unless something is done, according to an estimate by First Orion, a tech security firm that provides anti-spam technology to phone companies.
AT&T and T-Mobile said they have tested the system and are on track to launch next year.
The designers of SHAKEN aspire to be as successful as the engineers who were behind the effort to suppress once-ubiquitous email spam.
But that success can only be achieved if a “substantial portion’’ of the industry participates, Verizon warned in comments this July to the Federal Communications Commission, urging it to weigh in if that doesn’t happen.
“Verizon and a handful of other responsible communications providers actively work to shut down illegal robocallers, while many others are disinterested in solving the problem or even look the other way when accepting traffic they know or should know is illegal,’’ the company wrote. “As a result, the flood of illegal robocalls shows no sign of stopping.’’
©2018 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.