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Security & privacy

Two major mobile carriers are teaming up to fight robocalls

When modern smartphones first emerged on the scene in 2007, many imagined a glorious technological future with instant entertainment and productivity at our fingertips. While speculators were right on some accounts, they could have never anticipated the sheer volume of robocalls and spam that plague users each and every day.

It’s such an epidemic, in fact, that even the U.S. Government isn’t quite sure of the best way to tackle it. A variety of solutions have been proposed, but each one has fallen short of having truly meaningful effects. But when regulatory bodies fail to reign in a problem of this scale, who are consumers even supposed to turn to?

As it turns out, two of the nation’s largest mobile carriers have set their sights on addressing the robocall crisis. Despite being fierce rivals in the marketplace, they’re pooling their resources to help flag and deter these scam phone calls for good. Will their new tactics finally curb the tide of robocalls, or is this whole operation just another missed opportunity?

AT&T and T-Mobile team up to identify robocalls

Here’s a little bit of background on the robocall epidemic as it stands today: After floods of reports and complaints from consumers, the FCC pledged to intervene and develop a potential deterrence for robocalls — particularly international ones.

Rather than directly interfere with the marketplace, however, the FCC set a timeline for carriers to act and curb the issue themselves with its help. Since then, a few carriers have jumped into the fray with the hopes of discovering a “magic bullet” that could remedy the situation.

This collaborative process eventually led to the creation of the STIR/SHAKEN protocol, which verifies the legitimacy of a caller by checking whether the phone number is spoofed or not. If a number is deemed to be real, the recipient of the call will be notified on their phone via an icon that a real person is attempting to reach them.

And now, for the first time, carriers AT&T and T-Mobile are bringing the STIR/SHAKEN protocol to select handsets on their network.

This represents the latest attempt from the mobile industry to self-regulate robocalls and spam in light of rising customer concerns. The new protocol is said to be rolling out to a range of devices in the coming weeks, with more details such as compatible phones and timelines still to come.

How does STIR/SHAKEN help stop robocalls?

While not a perfect plan, being able to discern between real calls and phony ones is a marked improvement from where we stood on the issue previously. Oftentimes, robocallers will add your number to even more lists when you pick up the phone.

That’s why they rely on phone number spoofing to generate local numbers that victims are more likely to answer. Identifying spoofed numbers cuts this strategy in half, and has the potential to drastically reduce the pick-up rate for spam calls.

What’s more, the two major brands working together allows for far more ground to be covered while deterring robocallers. Rather than only relying on its own data, AT&T is comparing its findings with T-Mobile’s in order to finely tune its spam detection. If neither network is able to validate a number, it’s automatically flagged as unverified for customers to see.

Will I benefit from this change?

As for whether or not your personal device will be affected, neither company has been particularly forward on which phones are compatible with STIR/SHAKEN (or will be going forward). AT&T is newer to the protocol than T-Mobile, and as such, the company’s recent announcement is more participatory than revealing, for now.

As for T-Mobile, the company revealed a list of phones that are currently employing STIR/SHAKEN in a press release on its website, but there are no plans discussed for upcoming rollouts. All of the compatible phones are LG and Samsung Galaxy-branded, and curiously, one of the phones mentioned is the notorious, unreleased Galaxy Fold.

As of now, there’s been no mention of iPhones receiving STIR/SHAKEN capabilities in the near future.

If you do have a compatible handset from the list above, however, as well as T-Mobile service, you can expect your phone to start implementing the call screening feature automatically. Apple fans, unfortunately, will have to sit this one out.

If you do have an iPhone, just make sure to avoid some of the more popular robocall blocking apps — as several were discovered to be collecting user data.

As bad as robocalls are today, it’s heartening to see major telecom companies taking some action to address the ordeal. When all’s said and done, perhaps we’ll be able to look back at 2019 as the year the tide finally turned in the war against spam. But don’t’ count on it.

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