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Stopping Illegal Robocalls Where They Start
STIR/SHAKEN: Are We Drinking Too Much Kool-Aid?

STIR/SHAKEN: Are We Drinking Too Much Kool-Aid?

2019 has kicked off with a lot more press coverage of robocalls. What used to be an occasional annoyance is now a persistent daily or even hourly irritation. Many Americans feel they shouldn’t be subject to this sort of abuse. As the number of illegal calls continues to grow, the clamor for a definitive solution has reached a dull roar.

When the press asks the experts what’s going to be done, STIR/SHAKEN is the recurring theme. It’s mentioned in virtually every robocall article, FCC and carrier press release, and even in legislation.

Consumer Reports put robocalls on the cover of next month’s issue. The article says: “Eric Burger, the FCC’s chief technology officer, has said consumers can expect major phone carriers to begin to roll out a game-changing new system called STIR/SHAKEN this year.”

I know and like Dr. Burger. I wonder if he really used the “game-changing” label. Rolling out STIR/SHAKEN to the point that it materially affects the illegal robocall problem is going to take years. And that’s IF the industry actually employs the technology in an impactful way.

Fast Company recently published a well-written article on the topic. The biggest problem with this piece is the headline: “Here’s the cure for the deluge of scammy, spammy robocalls”. The subhead is a little less hyperbolic: “STIR and SHAKEN have the potential to prevent fraudsters from spoofing Caller ID. But a number of details are yet to be worked out.”

You have to get to the second half of the article to find out this isn’t a panacea. Chris Oatway of Verizon is a thoughtful and informed professional. He’s referenced several times throughout the article, e.g.: “In cases where a number is used illegitimately, the new technologies should help determine which carrier enabled the spoofing: ‘It’s safe to say that one of the early uses of STIR/SHAKEN can be effective and have rapid traceback,’ says Oatway.” And: “Oatway said STIR/SHAKEN could be very helpful, ‘but it also has the potential to be a tool that if not used by the industry in the right way, may fall flat.’”

Chris is highlighting the fact that even with STIR/SHAKEN, an originating carrier can continue to allow a flood of illegal calls to enter the network – and they can even mark those calls as “verified” per the new protocol. The technology will allow receiving carriers to quickly identify those problematic providers.

Then what happens? Today, we already know who many of these providers are. You may have read recently about the big FCC enforcement actions regarding robocalls. The FCC knows where those calls entered the network. Yet in none of those actions did the FCC disclose, or attempt to penalize or even discourage, the telephone providers that allowed those millions of calls to be placed. I cannot for the life of me figure out why that is.

We already can identify problematic originating providers via traceback – it takes longer than it would with STIR/SHAKEN, but it’s getting done. And what happens when we get to the end of the line (or in this case, the beginning of the line)? So far, the industry and the regulators clearly aren’t doing enough.

With or without STIR/SHAKEN, this zebra needs to change its stripes. It’s understandable that when FCC Chairman Pai or Senators Thune and Markey hear “game-changing” and “cure” they go all-in. But regulators, legislators and industry leaders need to start reading the second halves of these articles before they declare “problem solved.” Verizon, I know, is working aggressively both publicly and behind the scenes, investing beyond STIR/SHAKEN. I encourage others to follow their lead.

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