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Major Phone Service Providers Agree to Plan to Slow Robocallers

Hoping to fight a growing plague of robocalls, a dozen phone companies including the country’s biggest mobile and broadband providers agreed on Thursday to adopt new call-blocking technology and other measures to help regulators track down swindlers.

As part of a pact with 51 attorneys general from across the country, the companies said they would install technology intended to stamp out the calls before they reached consumers, who have long railed about the flood of robocalls that reached 4.7 billion in July, according to YouMail, a call-blocking service.

“Robocalls are a scourge — at best, annoying, at worst, scamming people out of their hard-earned money,” said Josh Stein, North Carolina’s attorney general, a co-leader of the coalition with the attorneys general from New Hampshire and Indiana. “By signing on to these principles, industry leaders are taking new steps to keep your phone from ringing with an unwanted call.”

The new agreement — which covers Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, Comcast and other providers — builds on work many are already doing to roll out technical standards that would help ensure that callers are using legitimate phone numbers. Currently, scammers often display bogus numbers — sometimes spoofing local or official numbers, like the Social Security Administration — to tempt targets into picking up the call.

Margot Saunders, senior counsel to the National Consumer Law Center, called the agreement “a good effort.” She said it showed that phone companies had an interest in establishing a system to know who their customers really were, while also requiring companies to establish a system to trace calls.

“These two principles address issues nobody else has,” she added.

The agreement does not provide a deadline for the companies to complete the integration of call-verifying technology, but it does cover the full range of service providers, from cable landlines to mobile communications to Voice over Internet Protocol companies. For the services to work best, it’s crucial that both ends of a call be verified, and that requires different kinds of providers to take part.

T-Mobile was the first to install the new standard — known by the acronym Stir/Shaken, a reference to James Bond and martini preparation — in January, although it is compatible only with certain devices. Verizon has also started rolling out call authentication, while T-Mobile and AT&T are working together to validate calls across their networks. AT&T has also begun validating calls with Comcast.

The other providers that signed the agreement are Bandwidth, CenturyLink, Charter Communications, Consolidated Communications, Frontier Communications, U.S. Cellular and Windstream Services.

Despite the lack of hard deadlines, a spokeswoman for Mr. Stein said his hope was that the companies would apply the new technology, as well as more free call-blocking and labeling tools, “as soon as is practical.”

The carriers will also be tasked with analyzing and monitoring network traffic to try to identify and monitor patterns consistent with robocalls — and then investigate suspicious activity, which will help attorneys general identify and prosecute illegal robocallers.

Jim McEachern, principal technologist at the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions, an association that focuses on industrywide problems, said that the participants who have signed on provide the critical mass needed to help make caller authentication effective. “The players here cover all segments of the industry,” he added, “so that is very positive in my mind.”

Anti-spoofing technology will not end spam calls, experts have said, but it should help curb the volume of calls. Smaller players who do not move quickly to adopt the caller authentication standard could still be exploited by robocallers, but the technology will make it easier to identify the source of the spam. That could allow regulators a route to tracking down offenders.


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