Mobile Apps

Verizon Steps Up Fight Against Rampant Robocalls

Verizon, the No. 1 mobile carrier in the United States, this week introduced a free version of its robocall-blocking app, which will bestandard on all new Android devices. The company further announcedthat it will auto-enroll eligible Android users to its Call Filterservice and block what are seen as “high-risk” calls.

This includes calls from numbers that have been reported asfraudulent. Those calls will be sent to voicemail, while the displayon caller ID will indicate “Potential Spam” to warn callers that it islikely a robocall.

Android users also can set their phones to blockall international incoming calls via both the free app and within theCall Filter Plus service, which Verizon introduced in March.

The enhanced version of the app, which is available for US$2.99 a monthper line, identifies unknown callers by name,creates a personal robocall block list, and accesses a robocall “riskmeter” and spam number lookup feature.

In case users are concerned about missing calls, the auto-blocking option can be turned off in both the free and enhanced versionsof the Call Filter service. Moreover, calls from known contacts willcome through as normal, even if the Call Filter service is on.

“We know our customers are sick and tired of the endless onslaught ofrobocalls. Let me be clear: I am too,” said Ronan Dunne, CEO of Verizon Consumer Group.

“Our team is committed to developing and enhancing the tools that willhelp bring relief to our customers,” he added. “This is anothermajor step in that process.”

The upgrades will become available on selectAndroid devices immediately, Verizon announced. For now at least, iOS users will have to download this new app manually.

Government Efforts to Stop the Calls

It isn’t clear who exactly made or, more accurately, instigated thefirst “robocall,” but the automated phone calls grew out of telemarketing,which began as electronic switching systems replaced switchboard operators. That development led to the rise of the “call center,” where telemarketers would make “cold calls” by dialing numbers of potential customers on a predetermined list.

The big change came with auto-dialers, which didn’t require thetelemarketer to dial the phone manually. In 1991, due to the growingnumber of such calls, the U.S. Congress enacted the Telephone ConsumerProtection Act (TCPA), which banned telemarketers from making coldcalls to customers. Americans can sign up for the Federal TradeCommission’s “National Do Not Call Registry.”

It should be noted that calls from political campaigns, surveys, charities, debtcollectors and healthcare providers are exempt from the registry,as are calls to businesses. Moreover, calls from banks, insurers, andphone companies are out of the jurisdiction of the FTC.

Despite the regulations, robocalls have continued, of course.

Auto-dialing software and Voice over IP systems, which dramatically reducedthe cost of long-distance calls, have made the matter worse.

There have been further efforts to stop the onslaught. New Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations that would ban most robocalls without written opt-in permission from the receiver went into effect on Sept. 1, 2009.

Those new rules have had little effect, however. Infact, according to the FCC, 50 percent of all calls will be spam by the end of this year!

“With robocalls, the only legal way is if you signed up for it andyou’ve said you would like to receive them,” said Dustin York,director of undergraduate and graduate communication at Maryville University.

“Elections and charities are allowed to send robocalls, but spamcompanies usually use charities as a loophole,” he told TechNewsWorld.”Legally it’s not right.”

Carriers Stepping Up the Fight

Since it appears that legislation and even the threat of fines won’twork, it could be up to the carriers to help hang up on thespam callers. The question is, how much can they actually do?

“It seems right that Verizon is making this service opt out — that is,you get it unless you opt out,” said Roger L. Kay, principal analystat Endpoint Technologies Associates.

“Robocalling is a terrible thing; it has meant that I no longer answermy phone unless I see a known caller in the caller ID,” he toldTechNewsWorld.

“An important technological fix yet to be implemented is to disallowthe spoofing of calling numbers,” Kay added.

This has become a tactic for the more insidious — oftentimesillicit — callers, which use a local number in place of the actualnumber.

“Like me, you probably get plenty of calls from your own area code andprefix,” said Kay. This tactic can make a robocall look as if it’s a call from a neighbor you just don’t happen to know.

“Make the caller be only who they actually are, and you’ve eliminatedtheir anonymity,” Kay suggested. “That would go a long what toward fixingthe problem.”

Are the Carriers Doing Enough?

Verizon isn’t the only carrier to offer blocking software, but it may be that this approach is too reactive and not sufficiently proactive to make a dent in the problem. The way Verizon’s program works — for Android users, at this point — is to have calls go to voicemail. That won’t stop the calls from coming in.

“We should fine the carriers for not doing enough to block robocalls,”Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research, said bluntly.

“They have the ability to identify those making the calls, and thegovernment should prosecute those idiots,” he told TechNewsWorld.

The government also could do more. The FCC could require carriers toidentify and disable robocallers, added McGregor.

“In addition, the Department of Justice (DoJ) could require thatinformation about robocallers be turned over for prosecution,” hepointed out. “In other words, if they were serious about it, they could dosomething.”

Fighting the Robocalls Yourself

In addition to the new offerings from Verizon, are plenty ofthird-party apps that can be installed on mobile phones.

“You can download software and third-party apps and subscriptions thatcan safeguard you from robocalls, but they do cost money,” noted Maryville U’sYork.

There are other simple solutions, the easiest being not to answerthe phone unless the caller is on your list.

“iPhone transcribes your voicemails, so it makes that process eveneasier,” added York.

“You can go through the process of reporting, but it doesn’t do muchin the short term,” he said candidly. “That is the best thing to dountil Apple does what Android has done. Don’t answer and use thetranscription feature on your phone’s voicemail.”

Understanding the Problem

Perhaps the biggest reason that these telemarketing calls continue isthat the FTC, FCC and even carriers have been treating them as though theyresult from legitimate businesses using loopholes in law — rather thanwhat most really are — namely part of a criminal enterprise.

The vast majority of car warranty, credit card debt solutions, studentdebt calls and health insurance calls aren’t from legitimatebusinesses. These calls are from gray market businesses, at best, andfrom scammers and outright criminals in the worst cases.

Then there are the outright criminal calls that falsely claim to be from theIRS, law enforcement, or a tech firm such as Microsoft or Apple.

“Robocalling has increased because people are desperate,” said Kay.”It’s inexpensive to mount, has low consequences for failure, and issometimes — albeit rarely — effective,” he added.

Legitimate marketers have for the most part given up on the callsbecause most people don’t trust them.

“From a marketing perspective, robocalls are directly againstparticipatory marketing,” said York.

“For better context, think about how much hatred you have forcompanies with popup ads. Robocalls are worse. At least you arechoosing to be on the Internet when you see the popup,” he pointed out.

Worse Before It Gets Better

The situation is likely to get worse. It won’t be long before morethan half the calls everyone receives likely will be spam calls, as the FCC noted.

The more worrisome issue is that just as technology is being developedto stop the problem, robocallers from India, Pakistan, China and Russia have begun using technology to mask accents and make their pitches sound more legitimate.Combine this with machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI),and it suggests that in the future, savvy hackers and cybercriminals will be able towrite code that will make the calls.

“Google Duplex is basically an AI that sounds like a real person, andit can make reservations for you,” noted York.

“It will make a call, and it will have a back-and-forth conversation.It’s not hard to imagine that sort of ability will fall into thewrong hands and be made into a robocall system. Could a robocallcompany come up with their own version of that? Absolutely,” warnedYork.

“Congress is working through an ethical dilemma and throwing around [suggestions like] having to alert someone if they are talking to a robot,” he added.

That likely won’t stop the regular scam calls — again, because thisisn’t solely a technical issue. Technology is just a tool the criminals use.

“There is no technical issue,” maintained McGregor.

“This is an issue that the carriers don’t want to clamp down onbecause it represents revenue, and the government doesn’t seem to wantto address the issue with any effective regulation or enforcement,”he said.

At present it seems there is little to stop the cybercriminals fromutilizing available technologies for illicit ends.

“All of these security scenarios are cat-and-mouse games — orwhack-a-mole, if you prefer,” said Kay. “When the black hats invent anew avenue in, the white hats learn to defend against it, leading tothe black hats inventing a new way, and so on. This is just anotherturn of the screw.”

Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2012. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile phones, displays, streaming media, pay TV and autonomous vehicles. He has written and edited for numerous publications and websites, including Newsweek, Wired and Peter.

1 Comment

  • I really hope that this won’t just be a sweet talk from Verizon and other carriers. We really need a Messiah in this robocall problem. I personally think that the only way we can fight back against them now is just through legal way. With this new app/technology, I hope that robocalls will be eliminated from this world!

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