Why robocalls will be 'shaken' and 'stirred' with new mandatory caller verification

A Robocall Summit hosted by the Federal Communications Commission is serving as a progress report on what major phone carriers are doing to protect you from those incessant robocalls interrupting your life.

All the major carriers were at the summit in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, along with other industry professionals. The people in the room all had a role in developing what's called the SHAKEN/STIR standard. But you didn't have to attend to get a grasp of how SHAKEN/STIR is going to alert you to robocalls. (If you want, you can watch the live stream here.)

This is everything you need to know about the SHAKEN/STIR call verification:

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What is SHAKEN/STIR, anyway?

SHAKEN/STIR stands for Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using toKENs and the Secure Telephone Identity Revisited. It's a mouthful.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to remember what it stands for; just know that it’s meant to protect you from all these annoying calls.

Basically what SHAKEN/STIR does is verify calls that are coming to your phone. Robocallers have turned to “neighborhood spoofing” – or replicating a number within your area code that looks familiar to you so there’s a better chance of picking up the phone. Once you pick up the phone, they know your line is active and, therefore, you are likely to get more calls.

How does it work?

SHAKEN/STIR will verify with a symbol such as a check mark that the person calling you is, indeed, authentic and calling you from the number on your screen. While call verification doesn’t block robocalls from reaching your phone, it gives you more information to make a decision to answer the call. It also tracks where the call is originating, identifying potential scammers.

The standard will not be the ultimate solution to thwart robocalls on its own.

“You know, we've sort of said things like there isn't just one silver bullet to solve this problem, and that's absolutely true,” said Comcast's Chris Wendt, one of the authors of the SHAKEN/STIR standard.

However, industry professionals hope SHAKEN/STIR will help deter robocalls and with a combination of other tools, might put an end to them.

Who is going to get it?

The FCC mandated the major phone carriers uphold this new standard to not only verify the calls within their network but also the calls coming from other networks. Along with other industry professionals, such as robocall blocking technology developers, they are working on ways to limit consumers from receiving robocalls.

All of the providers have signaled their intent to meet the standard to the FCC but also currently provide tools to their customers to block robocalls. Unfortunately, SHAKEN/STIR also requires modern phone systems such as 4G to work, so some landlines will not have the protection.

At the summit, Kathy Stokes of AARP detailed why this is an issue, saying many older Americans still use landlines. She gave an example of an 81-year-old woman who lost $80,000 on a Social Security scam, saying she “can’t make that back.”

Clark Whitten of Cox Communication said that even though landlines are older technology, the network behind them is working to update to make it SHAKEN/STIR compatible so calls can be verified.

Small providers with only a few thousand customers are also concerned about how the move to SHAKEN/STIR is going to affect their network — balancing cost with not wanting to be left behind as the industry looks to regain their customers' trust.

David Frigen of Wabash Communications, a small provider in Illinois, said at the summit that he got an estimate of $100,000 to upgrade his company’s network with thousands of dollars in the coming years for maintenance and more updates. Joe Weeden of Metaswitch, a telecommunications vendor, called for the switch to SHAKEN/STIR to be easy and affordable for small providers, but also noted that only certain portions of the network would need upgrading, not the entire thing.

When can we have this?

The FCC expects providers to have the SHAKEN/STIR standard implemented by the end of the year, and carriers are trying to validate calls from other networks by October. Effects can be seen now, as most providers offer free services that identify potential robocalls, like T-Mobile’s scam likely feature.

Representatives from AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile were present at the summit and discussed their progress to reaching the SHAKEN/STIR standard. Most carriers have implemented the SHAKEN/STIR standards on their own networks — meaning a call from a Verizon caller to a Verizon caller are verified — but are working with other networks to verify cross-network calls.

“This is one issue people can come together and work together and agree,” said Linda Vandeloop, assistant vice president of external affairs and regulatory at AT&T. “Once we started working together and talking about solutions together, we started really, I think, coming up with some things that are going to make an impact, that are making an impact right now.”

Why are they doing this again?

Robocalls are the No. 1 consumer complaint to the FCC. Just in the month of June, Americans received 4.4 billion robocalls, according to YouMail. Robocall software is cheap and easy to operate, making it a simple way to scam people out of thousands of dollars.

Where can I get it?

Unfortunately, SHAKEN/STIR will only work in the U.S. because it is a U.S. solution. Even though a lot of robocall scams do come from outside the country, most illegal telemarketing originates from the U.S.

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And the unknown ...

While SHAKEN/STIR has been touted as a way for consumers to make a decision to answer the phone, a study from Transaction Network Services, a telecommunications solutions company, says that might not be the case.

According to Lavinia Kennedy, TNS’s representative at the summit, consumers still do not answer the phone if the number is verified because they want more information to determine the intent behind a call.

“STIR/SHAKEN alone is not going to help the consumer,” said Kennedy. “What helps the consumer is using the analytics on top of it to help the consumer to make a decision on whether they want to answer the call or not.”

One example Kennedy gave was to put the logo of the company calling as a verification symbol so legitimate business calls — like the dentist or the pharmacy — are obvious and the consumer can answer. When TNS tested this, caller pick-up went from 21% to 71%.

Kennedy also said she thinks SHAKEN/STIR will help reduce the number of spoofed calls.

There are concerns over how robocallers are going to react to the new protections, as they have a tendency to adapt to new measures aimed to stop them, says Jonathan Nelson of robocall blocking software company HIYA. It is unclear what the future of robocalls might look like.

“We have seen many times over the years that they will innovate in this arms race against spam detection services, and they are certainly planning right now how they’re going to behave to try and continue their campaigns,” said Nelson.

He thinks robocallers might try to get their numbers verified or move their operations overseas.

Kennedy said they might resort to “turning and burning,” meaning using a phone number for a short amount of time then ditching it for another number as to not be identified.

Nelson estimates only 30% of potential scam calls will be verified because of the technological and geographical limits but says it will be easier to trace the location of robocallers as more calls are verified. He thinks eventually, crackdown operations on robocallers will go from days and weeks to minutes.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Robocalls to get James Bond-approved treatment in near future