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Despite federal crackdown, the robocalls just keep coming

After declining during the pandemic, robocalls are back to high volumes again.Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

Remember last year, when the Federal Communications Commission was finally going to crack down on those tiresome robocalls from telemarketers and con artists?

They even unleashed a new phone spam-fighting technology with a name straight out of a spy movie — STIR/SHAKEN.

How’s that been working out? Not so hot, according to new data from YouMail, a leading maker of anti-robocalling software.

“Robocalls have returned to the volumes they were at right before STIR/SHAKEN was deployed,” said YouMail chief executive Alex Quilici.

About 10 million consumers and many businesses use YouMail to intercept incoming robocalls. Based on the data from these customers, YouMail generates monthly estimates of robocall traffic. And the data for March 2022 wasn’t pretty. YouMail estimated that US residents received 4.4 billion robocalls last month, roughly the same number as in June of 2021, when STIR/SHAKEN went into effect.

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It could be worse. Robocalls peaked in 2019, when US residents were bombarded by 58 billion of them, according to YouMail. A major decline in 2020 was one of the few positive impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic: Robocalls dropped 22 percent to 46 billion. But the nuisance calls rebounded in 2021 to 50 billion.

Quilici said that STIR/SHAKEN was never going to be a panacea. It’s intended to solve just one major problem — the ability of robocallers to dial people using phony or “spoofed” phone numbers that aren’t linked to the caller’s real identity.

STIR/SHAKEN was designed specifically to prevent this. It requires phone companies to attach a digital code to outgoing calls. The recipient’s phone company can now confirm that the incoming call came from an actual subscriber. This way, AT&T knows for sure that an incoming call was sent to you from, say, Verizon. If it’s a nuisance call, the recipient can complain to AT&T, which in turn complains to Verizon, which in turn contacts the telemarketing company, warning it to stop making such calls or face expulsion from the Verizon network.

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But an FCC spokesman noted that many smaller phone companies were given a temporary exemption from the STIR/SHAKEN system for cost reasons, allowing these companies’ customers to keep using spoofed phone numbers. The exemption was supposed to expire in 2023. But in December, after the FCC received reports of a surge of robocalls from these carriers, its commissioners voted unanimously to move the deadline up a year, to June 30, 2022. In the meantime, call spoofing goes on.

In addition, Quilici said that some robocallers are giving up on spoofed numbers and instead buying up thousands of real phone numbers that carry STIR/SHAKEN digital signatures.

“It doesn’t take long to make a thousand calls and then move on to the next number,” said Quilici. It can take days for phone companies to start blocking the numbers, and that’s plenty of time to crank out spammy phone calls.

Quilici said that call-tracking technology now under development should dramatically speed up the time it takes to spot and block the phone numbers being used for robocalling. But for now, there’s no quick fix in sight.

“E-mail spam was completely out of control, and it was, what, three to five years where everybody worked on it and got it into some kind of reasonable shape,” said Quilici. “So that’s kind of my guess — three to five years before nuisance robocalls are ... a thing of the past.”

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And even then, of course, the telemarketers won’t be entirely out of business. Quilici said some criminals are developing targeted robocalling strategies. They legally acquire the phone numbers of elderly people, then bombard them with calls touting sketchy medical treatments and financial schemes.

“The data is out there,” said Quilici. “The bad guys are going to get better and better at using it, in order to make fewer and fewer calls and have those calls hit the mark.”




Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.