FCC Launches New Offensive Against Scam, Robo Calls

NEWS ANALYSIS: Carriers were required to explain their plans for comprehensive call blocking on Nov. 19, with the ability to be in place in 2019.


The Federal Communications Commission has launched an all-out war on robo-callers and scammers by hitting them at the network level. In a letter to U.S. voice carriers, both landline and wireless, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai asked each about their plans to move forward on ways to detect and block spoofed scam and robocalls. Pai is also asking carriers to move toward a technology cleverly called SHAKEN/STIR (Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs/Secure Telephony Identity Revisited).

The letters asked each carrier to respond by Nov. 19. The carriers were asked about their plans to support SHAKEN/STIR, their timeline for implementing it and other information, including what the companies are doing to help their customers block scam and robo calls.

Two of the carriers contacted by eWEEK provided their responses to the FCC. AT&T explained that the company is working on implementing call authentication, which is the purpose behind SHAKEN/STIR, and that it is expected to be in operation by the third quarter 2019, which would meet the FCC’s deadline. AT&T also said that it has added a number of services, including call blocking for scam and robocalls.

Call Authentication Is on the Way

T-Mobile also provided its response to eWEEK. Unlike all of the other carriers, T-Mobile said that the company is ready now to deploy call authentication and that it is ready now to support the peer authentication in SHAKEN/STIR. T-Mobile said that the only thing necessary is for other carriers in the industry to support the protocols as well.

T-Mobile also said that it has deployed a number of call management capabilities that are already allowing customers to block spoofed calls as well as a variety of robocalls that aren’t scams (including surveys and political calls) and calls from prisons.

T-Mobile also announced a new app called T-Mobile Name ID that gives customers highly granular control over what calls they receive, what calls are sent to voice mail and what calls are blocked. The other major carriers also have scam and robocall blocking at some level, including a Name ID app from Verizon.

T-Mobile announced that it has caught more than 6 billion scam calls in the last 18 months. The company is able to identify hijacked phone numbers (in which a scammer uses an existing legitimate phone number) by analyzing the call details and doing the blocking at the network level, so the call never reaches the customer.

Neither Sprint nor Verizon responded to requests for their FCC responses.

Digital Certificates, Public Key Cryptography

The SHAKEN/STIR technologies use digital certificates secured using public key cryptography to provide assurance that a phone call from one network to another is coming from where it is supposed to originate. Each telephone company will provide that assurance to the other company that’s receiving the call. The certificates are obtained from a mutually trusted certificate authority as each call is created.

Each call uses a SIP (session initialization protocol) identity header to provide the cryptographic string used for authentication. The call can have three levels of authentication. First is full attestation, in which the call provider has authenticated the calling party and that they are associated with the calling number, which is what a caller would get when calling using their phone and their carrier.

Partial attestation is when the service provider can authenticate the call origin but not the call source. This typically happens when a call is being placed through a corporate PBX. A third type is gateway attestation, which happens when you can’t verify anything beyond the gateway, which could happen with incoming international calls.

If all of this seems to sound familiar, it should. The process being used for phone voice authentication is very similar to setting up secure connections over the internet. In much the same way that an SSL connection requires a valid certificate from an accepted certificate authority, phone calls would also require a valid certificate.

While this won’t completely eliminate spoofed numbers, it should make then very rare. Spoofing a caller-ID number is now fairly common, which is one of the reasons that the FCC is taking this next step. Spoofing an authenticated connection is not impossible, just as it’s possible to spoof an existing certificate on the internet. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Stopping the Vast Productivity Hit Is Also a Goal

The goal of the FCC is to do more than eliminate a source of annoyance brought on by those repeated interruptions. The commission is also trying to eliminate the vast productivity hit that comes with the time wasted answering robocalls and the financial hit taken by the fraud that accompanies scam calls.

By the end of 2019, all U.S. carriers—including wireless, landline as well as VoIP carriers—are expected to have protections in place. While it’s hard to say how much money your organization has lost to robocalls and scammers, it’s certainly significant. If you need a number, just count the number of bogus calls received in a month, multiply that times the two minutes or so it takes to handle each, and then by the cost of that time to the company. Anything you can do to cut down on the time wasted and the resources spent that didn’t need to be.

Maybe in a year we can stop wasting time every day on scam calls and get back to wasting time by hanging out in the break room.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...