Stepping up the war on robocalls, Pai moves on STIR/SHAKEN mandate

Mandate comes as part of implementing the TRACED Act

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has proposed mandatory implementation of the STIR/SHAKEN call authentication framework to fight unwanted robocalls, in line with recently passed federal legislation.

If adopted, the mandate would require voice service providers to implement STIR/SHAKEN by June 30, 2021. The FCC is set to vote on the new rules during its March 31 meeting.

The agency estimates that the annual value of eliminating the “wasted time and nuisance” of illegal scam robocalls will be more than $3 billion, and the mandate will help trim the approximately $10 billion that fraudulent robocall schemes cost Americans each year.

President Donald Trump signed the Pallone-Thune TRACED Act on December 30, 2019. That legislation included a provision which directed the FCC to require voice service providers to implement STIR/SHAKEN (Secure Telephone Identity Revisited/Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using toKENs) within 18 months of the TRACED Act being adopted.

Pai’s subsequent proposal, according to the FCC, would “require originating and terminating voice service providers to implement STIR/SHAKEN in the Internet Protocol (IP) portions of their networks by June 30, 2021.” An accompanying Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seeks comment on additional aspects of implementing the TRACED Act, from one-year deadline extensions for small and rural provider to requiring that voice service providers “work toward deploying caller ID authentication in the non-IP parts of their networks.” (STIR/SHAKEN is a SIP-based technology can only be used in IP-based networks, so legacy networks have to rely on “reasonable analytics” as a basis for dealing with robocalls.)

The mandate would be the latest in a series of actions that the FCC has taken in an effort to stem the flood of automated spam, fraudulent and unwanted robocalls that Americans deal with daily. The number of unwanted robocalls was up 49% between 2018 and 2019, according to recent analysis by Transaction Network Services, which found that the average consumer received 325 unwanted robocalls in 2019, and Americans as a whole now receive more than 300 million of those calls each day.

However, even as the FCC and Federal Trade Commission were stepping up efforts in the latter half of last year by focusing on voluntary STIR/SHAKEN implementation, allowing service providers to preemptively block calls that were considered at high-risk to be spam or scams, and enforcement actions against robocallers, TNS found that robocalls were actually on the increase, growing even faster in the second half of last year than in the first half.

In particular, robocallers are using “neighbor” spoofing, in which a call appears to be coming from a recipient’s local exchange, to entice people to answer. They’re also shifting to spoof legitimate 800 numbers, including actual customer service numbers of legitimate companies—probably at least in part because 800 numbers are not covered by the STIR/SHAKEN authentication framework.

Still, TNS found that when STIR/SHAKEN is implemented, it cuts down on unwanted robocalls dramatically. Just 11% of calls originating from Tier 1 network providers were considered high-risk, even though such providers account for 68% of U.S. calls. That means that 89% of high-risk calls were originating from smaller, non-Tier 1 operators, TNS noted, and “suggests that as top carriers deploy STIR/SHAKEN and take other aggressive measures to combat robocalls, bad actors will continue to target smaller carriers to launch their robocall campaigns.”

“All of us are fed up with robocalls—including me,” said Pai. “We’ve taken many steps to stem the tide of spoofed robocalls. I’m excited about the proposal I’m advancing today: requiring phone companies to adopt a caller ID authentication framework called STIR/SHAKEN. Widespread implementation will give American consumers a lot more peace of mind when they pick up the phone. Last year, I demanded that major phone companies voluntarily deploy STIR/SHAKEN, and a number of them did. But it’s clear that FCC action is needed to spur across-the-board deployment of this important technology. There is no silver bullet when it comes to eradicating robocalls, but this is a critical shot at the target.”

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