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Security & privacy

FCC says your phone carrier can block robocalls by default – here’s what that means

Robocalls have been increasing at an astonishing rate. They are swamping people’s phones to the point that 70% of us aren’t even bothering to answer calls anymore. How bad is this problem? Robocalls from scammers and legitimate companies have risen to 5 billion per month in the U.S., according to YouMail, a company that blocks and tracks robocalls.

That works out to 14 calls per person. In 2018, a record 48 billion robocalls were placed to phones in the U.S. That’s about 1,500 robocalls per second, which is 56.8% more robocalls than there were in 2017, according to Consumer Reports.

Last November, the FCC proposed a plan to stop robocalls that would create a database of phone numbers that had been reassigned, as well as a tactic to give mobile carriers more latitude to stop them. In March, the FTC (not the FCC) shuttered four telemarketing companies that were responsible for billions of robocalls. Now, the government has officially stepped up their game to fight back. Here’s how it might affect you.

FCC votes on blocking robocalls

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved giving landline and mobile phone carriers the right to block robocalls from scammers and legitimate companies through their devices.

For consumers, this means that mobile phone companies can install whatever tools they need in cell phones to block these annoying and unwanted calls.

Some carriers, such as T-Mobile and Verizon, already offer consumers free partial protection against robocallers. The FCC vote also clarified the issue of whether consumers have to give permission first before robocalls can be blocked by mobile carriers. This answers the question of whether mobile phone companies are liable if they block a call that had to go through.


Related: Here’s why there is no quick fix for robocalls


The FCC ruled that consumers do not have to grant such permission, but can opt out of call blocking if they want to. Although why they would is a mystery.

Carriers already have or are working on tools to block calls from scammers. Some are free and others cost extra. The FCC ruling did not mandate that carriers offer call-blocking services for free or make the service a default option on phones.

While this ruling is a step in the right direction — and may reduce the number of robocalls — it’s only one step on a long road. Mobile carriers are playing a game of whack-a-mole. One T-Mobile executive said that as soon as they find a scammer, the grifters already have a new scheme.

One of the most common practices now is for crooks to fake, or spoof, phone numbers. They can make it look like the IRS is calling, the police or maybe a big retailer. If they have enough of your info, they could even make it look like your mom was calling.

New system could catch more robocalls

While it may seem like we are fated to live a life hounded by robocall scammers, there is something that could be a game-changer for consumers

For the past few years, a new system has been in the works that would authenticate phone numbers. It’s a protocol called Signature-based Handling of Asserted Information Using toKENs (SHAKEN) and Secure Telephone Identity Revisited (STIR).

When a call comes in, the system will try to verify the legitimacy of the number through a digital signature. If it passes the test, you’ll see some kind of verification on your screen. No verification — assume it’s a robocall.

Some of the big carriers have been testing it, with T-Mobile rolling out a limited version earlier this year. The problem is, it’ll only check numbers made through its own network. Verizon also is using SHAKEN/STIR, but only on its own network.

There was a breakthrough in SHAKEN/STIR when AT&T and Comcast announced they had successfully authenticated calls made between their two networks. The companies called it a major milestone. Not only that, but both companies will be ready to roll out the service later this year. The best part? It’ll be free for their customers.

For its part, Verizon said it plans to “deploy STIR/SHAKEN on its interconnections with all major carriers” in the coming months. Other big names are supporting the SHAKEN/STIR protocol, such as Charter, Cox, Google, Sprint and Vonage.

Last month, the Senate passed the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence (TRACED) Act, which would make robocalls illegal and require phone companies to adopt SHAKEN and STIR.

The FCC is proposing to require voice service providers to implement SHAKEN/STIR by the end of this year.

Even if the FCC and Congress step in and empowers carriers to block robocalls, they’ll never go away. But here’s what you can do to protect yourself. 

Stop robocalls once and for all

Robocalls are not only annoying, but they scam Americans out of millions every year. Learn Kim's tricks for stopping them for good in this handy guide.

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