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Carriers implement ways to cut back on robocalls

Illegal robocalls cost consumers $10 billion a year in fraud, and $3 billion in wasted time, according to federal authorities.Bloomberg Creative Photos/Bloomberg

The number of scam robocalls has plunged by almost 30 percent since June, as major national cellphone service providers have increasingly adopted new technology to help consumers avoid “spoofing” calls, a new report says.

Cellphone service providers are required by federal law to install a technology called STIR/SHAKEN, which allows them to verify a call coming on their networks is actually coming from the number on its caller ID, and to take certain steps if it isn’t.

For some customers the new technology now gives them a warning that comes up on their phone screens, such as “SCAM RISK” when a call comes in from an unverified source, giving the customer the option to pick up or ignore it.


Other steps taken by providers include blocking all calls from numbers that couldn’t possibly exist because of the combination of area code and prefix on its caller ID, and allowing customers to routinely block all calls with no caller ID, upon request.

The Federal Communications Commission set a deadline of June 30 for cellphone service providers to adopt caller ID verification, with a three-month informal grace period set to expire next week.

The five biggest cellphone providers — who together control 99 percent of the market —have adopted the new technology, with some exceptions for small portions of their networks, according to a new report by Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, or MassPIRG.

But the report also found that many small- and mid-sized providers have not adopted the technology, particularly those who provide landline service. Some of them have an extension on compliance.

“We’re seeing strong progress, but there’s still a lot of work to be done to get the smaller providers on board,” said Deirdre Cummings, MassPIRG legislative director.

“The development of new technology, combined with the FCC requirement, really benefits consumers by significantly reducing the nuisance and danger of robocalls,” she said. “When we get all providers on board we should see a great reduction.”


Some robocalls provide useful information, such as calls from school districts when classes are canceled due to weather and calls from pharmacies when prescriptions are ready, while others may be unwanted and annoying, but not illegal, like an offer to reduce your credit card interest rate. But calls aimed at deceiving or defrauding consumers are scams and illegal.

Illegal robocalls cost consumers $10 billion a year in fraud, and $3 billion in wasted time, according to federal authorities.

To help enforce compliance with its caller ID verification mandate, the FCC is requiring all phone service providers to register the steps they have taken with the FCC. Failure to register will result in those providers being blocked from switching calls to those providers who have complied. (Calls typically pass through different networks and different providers, like handing off a baton in a relay race.)

Spoofing occurs when con artists call you and impersonate a bank, the IRS, the police, the Social Security Administration, Amazon, or other entities, using software to have the names of those entities pop up on your phone screen.

When you pick up, the con artist tries to get your personal information, such as bank passwords, or get you to agree to wire money or buy gift cards to pay some phony obligation.

Some robocallers set their caller ID with your area code and prefix to lure you into believing the call is from a neighbor or local business.


The MassPirg report, while “cheering the prospect of fewer robocalls,” also points out that “robotexts are on the rise,” which the report says now number in the billions per month.

The caller ID verification technology now mostly adopted by cellphone service providers does not work with text messages, the report says. Service providers are working on technology to bridge that gap, the report says.

“Phone service providers should face the same requirements for text messages as they do for robocalls,” Cummings said.

Complaints about text messages are up about 35 percent compared to three years ago, the FCC says.

Another area of concern is landlines, many of which are provided by smaller phone service providers.

“For people who have landlines, the caller ID verification technology is available, but there’s a lot of smaller companies going without it because for them, it’s an expense,” Cummings said.

The FCC gave companies with fewer than 100,000 customers a two-year extension of the deadline for compliance.

But MassPIRG and some state attorneys general are now pushing the FCC to move up that deadline by one year.

“We’re thrilled to see the reduction in robocalls to cell phones, but the danger is that the bad actors will now concentrate on landlines, which are still unprotected,” Cummings said.

Got a problem? Send your consumer issue to sean.murphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.