See the new tool in the fight against robocalls

The new tool, STIR/SHAKEN, will help stamp out call spoofing, but experts expect scammers to adapt.

Illustration of a robot making telemarketing calls at an office desk.

By Nigel Chiwaya

Good news for everyone sick of robocalls: The telephone industry hears you and is doing something about it.

Bad news: You’re still going to get robocalls.

Robocalls have skyrocketed in recent years, with the call-blocking service YouMail estimating that 5.2 billion calls were placed to U.S. numbers in March, up from 2.5 billion three years earlier.

Heading on up Estimated monthly robocalls in the U.S. Source: YouMail Robocall Index Chart: Nigel Chiwaya / NBC News

But carriers are in the early stages of implementing new protocols aimed at stamping out one of the most common tactics used by robocall scammers. The protocols, STIR (Secure Telephony Identity Revisited) and SHAKEN (Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs), will make it harder for scammers to hide their actual phone numbers — though experts warn it’s unlikely that these calls will be gone for good any time soon.

Here’s how STIR and SHAKEN would work on a hypothetical phone call from Carrier A to Carrier B: When the caller on Carrier A hits the dial button, a digital signature is attached to the call with information about the phone number and carrier. When the call arrives on Carrier B’s network, the carrier checks to see if the signature is there and is valid. If it passes the test, the call is marked as verified to the recipient.

When rolled out across enough networks, the telephone industry hopes that STIR/SHAKEN will eliminate neighbor spoofing, where scammers trick a caller ID into believing that a call is coming from the recipient’s area code. If a call has been verified, the number on the caller ID is definitely the number the call came from.

Industry experts say getting rid of spoofing’s biggest benefit will be that it allows call-blocking services to more accurately flag scam calls.

“It’s an important tool,” said Jim McEachern, principal technologist at the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions and one of the developers of the SHAKEN protocol. Call-blocking services make decisions based on the caller ID, he said, “but the caller ID can be spoofed. Once they have hard data, they’ll be able to make much better decisions.”

These experts say eliminating spoofing will also increase the business costs of being shady. Because scammer’s underlying phone numbers will be exposed, and once they’re exposed the chances of their numbers being blocked is high, the scammers will ultimately have to buy more phone numbers more often.

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