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Verizon Steps Up Fight Against Rampant Robocalls

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 be standard on all new Android devices. The company further announced that it will auto-enroll eligible Android users to its Call Filter service and block what are seen as "high-risk" calls.

This includes calls from numbers that have been reported as fraudulent. Those calls will be sent to voicemail, while the display on caller ID will indicate "Potential Spam" to warn callers that it is likely a robocall.

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

The enhanced version of the app, which is available for US$2.99 a month per line, identifies unknown callers by name, creates a personal robocall block list, and accesses a robocall "risk meter" 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 versions of the Call Filter service. Moreover, calls from known contacts will come through as normal, even if the Call Filter service is on.

"We know our customers are sick and tired of the endless onslaught of robocalls. 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 will help bring relief to our customers," he added. "This is another major step in that process."

The upgrades will become available on select Android 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 the first "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 the telemarketer to dial the phone manually. In 1991, due to the growing number of such calls, the U.S. Congress enacted the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), which banned telemarketers from making cold calls to customers. Americans can sign up for the Federal Trade Commission's "National Do Not Call Registry."

It should be noted that calls from political campaigns, surveys, charities, debt collectors and healthcare providers are exempt from the registry, as are calls to businesses. Moreover, calls from banks, insurers, and phone 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 reduced the 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. In fact, 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 and you'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 spam companies 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't work, it could be up to the carriers to help hang up on the spam 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 analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates.

"Robocalling is a terrible thing; it has meant that I no longer answer my phone unless I see a known caller in the caller ID," he told TechNewsWorld.

"An important technological fix yet to be implemented is to disallow the spoofing of calling numbers," Kay added.

This has become a tactic for the more insidious -- oftentimes illicit -- callers, which use a local number in place of the actual number.

"Like me, you probably get plenty of calls from your own area code and prefix," 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 eliminated their anonymity," Kay suggested. "That would go a long what toward fixing the 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 the government should prosecute those idiots," he told TechNewsWorld.

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

"In addition, the Department of Justice (DoJ) could require that information about robocallers be turned over for prosecution," he pointed out. "In other words, if they were serious about it, they could do something."

Fighting the Robocalls Yourself

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

"You can download software and third-party apps and subscriptions that can safeguard you from robocalls, but they do cost money," noted Maryville U's York.

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

"iPhone transcribes your voicemails, so it makes that process even easier," added York.

"You can go through the process of reporting, but it doesn't do much in the short term," he said candidly. "That is the best thing to do until Apple does what Android has done. Don't answer and use the transcription feature on your phone's voicemail."

Understanding the Problem

Perhaps the biggest reason that these telemarketing calls continue is that the FTC, FCC and even carriers have been treating them as though they result from legitimate businesses using loopholes in law -- rather than what most really are -- namely part of a criminal enterprise.

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

Then there are the outright criminal calls that falsely claim to be from the IRS, 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 is sometimes -- albeit rarely -- effective," he added.

Legitimate marketers have for the most part given up on the calls because most people don't trust them.

"From a marketing perspective, robocalls are directly against participatory marketing," said York.

"For better context, think about how much hatred you have for companies with popup ads. Robocalls are worse. At least you are choosing 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 more than 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 developed to 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 to write code that will make the calls.

"Google Duplex is basically an AI that sounds like a real person, and it 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 the wrong hands and be made into a robocall system. Could a robocall company come up with their own version of that? Absolutely," warned York.

"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 this isn'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 on because it represents revenue, and the government doesn't seem to want to address the issue with any effective regulation or enforcement," he said.

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

"All of these security scenarios are cat-and-mouse games -- or whack-a-mole, if you prefer," said Kay. "When the black hats invent a new avenue in, the white hats learn to defend against it, leading to the black hats inventing a new way, and so on. This is just another turn of the screw."


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 FoxNews.com. Email Peter.

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