Business

Hiawatha Bray | Tech Lab

License to kill: robocalls. The pressure’s on for phone carriers to target spammers

George Patisteas/Globe Staff

Is 2019 the beginning of the end for robocall scammers?

Aaron Foss sure hopes so — even if it’s bad for his business.

Foss created Nomorobo, a program that blocks those infuriating nuisance phone calls. Over the past five years, he said, Nomorobo has filtered out nearly 1 billion unwanted calls.

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Sounds impressive — except that in 2018 alone, US consumers were hit with 48 billion such calls, according to YouMail, another player in the robocall-blocking business.

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So Foss might as well be bailing the Titanic with a teacup.

His fortunes may soon change, though. In response to the public’s fury, the government is coming for the robocallers. Federal regulators and members of Congress are demanding that the nation’s phone companies install a new technology called STIR/SHAKEN — a clever name for a system that’s licensed to kill robocalls. Actually, STIR/SHAKEN doesn’t stop robocalls. It just makes them easier to identify and block.

Last month, US Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and South Dakota GOP Senator John Thune introduced legislation that would mandate the use of STIR/SHAKEN by all US phone companies.

Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission, which has been asking the carriers to voluntarily adopt STIR/SHAKEN since last May, has run out of patience. Last week, FCC chairman Ajit Pai warned them to put the system in place by the end of 2019 — or else.

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“If it appears major carriers won’t meet the deadline to get this done this year, the FCC will have to consider regulatory intervention,” Pai said.

For Foss, 2019 might be a long-awaited tipping point. He even imagines a future in which his robocall-blocking program Nomorobo is no longer needed.

“It’s weird,” Foss said, “but I hope that happens.”

Robocalling was made possible by telephone services that use Internet technology instead of old-school analog landlines. With an Internet phone, you can use software to make calls appear to come from any number, located anywhere, a practice that’s known as “Caller ID spoofing.”

Often, the practice is perfectly legal. Law enforcement agencies use legal spoofing services such as SpoofCard to conceal their identities, for instance. Spoofing is also used on legitimate robocalls like the ones announcing a snow day at your child’s elementary school. But since 2009, it has been a federal crime to spoof phone numbers for fraudulent purposes, such as pretending to be the Internal Revenue Service.

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For now, Nomorobo and similar programs like YouMail and Hiya are the best defenses against the robocallers. These programs compile databases of numbers known to be used by scammers, automatically blocking them if they dial your phone. They’re not foolproof. Foss said Nomorobo collects 1,500 new robocall phone numbers every day. So even though the app’s database is updated every hour, some scammers are bound to get through.

Besides, there’s no good robocalling solution for households that still use old-school analog landline phones. And since fewer people use analog phones each year, the phone companies have no incentive to upgrade them with anti-robocall features.

But for those who can use them, the robocall blockers do a decent job. They run as apps on Apple and Android smartphones, charging a small fee, usually around $2 or $3 a month.

Nomorobo also offers a free version for Internet-based landline phones. Just go to Nomorobo.com to sign up.

But today’s robocall blockers are reactive. They work only against numbers already used by robocallers. STIR/SHAKEN would add a new layer of security.

STIR/SHAKEN is not a specific product, but rather a technology standard adopted by an industry group for carriers to attach digital signatures to their phone numbers. Those electronic tags could then be used to identity the phone company the caller is using. So if you’re an AT&T customer, your phone company will know for sure if an incoming call was sent to you from, say, Verizon, by tracing the digital signature.

Now suppose this call was from some nuisance telemarketer. The recipient can complain to AT&T, which in turn contacts Verizon, which in turn contacts the telemarketing company.

The offender is warned to cut out the robocalls, or face expulsion from the Verizon network. Even if a phone spammer was based outside the United States, STIR/SHAKEN would make it easier to identify and block the worst offenders.

Even if a scammer started routing calls through some smaller independent carrier that tolerated robocallers, consumers and phone companies could easily add these sleazy phone companies to a blacklist.

Foss said he is considering adding a feature to Nomorobo that would instantly block any call from blacklisted phone companies. You could also set your phone to reject calls from any number that doesn’t have a digital signature.

When every major phone company adopts STIR/SHAKEN, robocalling will be a lot less rewarding. At the same time, the system won’t interfere with legitimate robocalls.

But even as he hopes for the best, Foss worries that robocallers will discover new ways to torment us.

“These guys are like cockroaches,” he said. “They always find a way to live.”

But we don’t need them dead, just crippled, like the e-mail spammers. Those guys still send out billions of junk messages, but thanks to better spam filters we hardly ever see them.

If STIR/SHAKEN works as advertised, robocallers can dial my number 50 times a day and I won’t hear a thing.

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