What is Traceback?
Traceback is a cooperative effort by telecommunications providers to address the illegal robocall scourge. Robocalls are hard to stop because we rarely know exactly where they come from. When a call arrives at its destination, the Caller-ID is often “spoofed” (meaning made up by the robocaller); frequently it is a phone number that belongs to some other innocent party.
How can we find where a call started if we can’t rely on the Caller-ID? Because a call gets handed off from one phone provider to another, often several times, as it makes its way from the point of origin to the called party, we have to trace it back through each of those providers to find the source.
There are several steps to the traceback process:
- Individual illegal call examples, representative of a particular calling campaign or scam, are identified via customer complaints and analysis by providers and robocall-blocking apps.
- For each call example, the called party’s phone company identifies the provider that sent them that call.
- An inquiry is sent to that “upstream” provider. They search their internal records(using the date and time of the call, and the number called) and respond with the name of the provider that sent THEM the call, and the process repeats until we get to the source of the call.
- This originating provider works with their customer (the robocaller) to stop the illegal activity.
- If the illegal calls don’t stop, then the next provider in line takes steps to address the problem. Government enforcement officials will also get involved.
The traceback process is managed by USTelecom, a trade association based in Washington DC. The effort is funded by the members of USTelecom. The FCC has asked all providers to participate; non-members can do so without charge. (Here are some related FCC letters.)
Data about phone calls is sensitive and protected by federal privacy laws. The law specifically allows for disclosure in situations like this, without requiring a subpoena or other time-consuming steps. (See 47 USC §222(d)(2) here.)
USTelecom traces back calls using a secure, web-based automatic process. Only information about specific calls already identified as illegal is collected; there is no general or speculative mining of call records. Tracing back a call exposes phone numbers and hand-off details only to those providers directly involved in that call. With the automatic process, calls can be traced in a matter of days or just hours.
Even if a call comes from outside the USA, it must go through a US-based provider to get to a USA telephone number. Illegal robocallers can’t continue to break the law if all providers are committed to stopping them.