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It’s a wonder anyone answers the phone anymore, but people do. Scammers stole $13.5 billion from those people last year reports the Federal Trade Commission. That’s just actual scams that people fell for and doesn’t include the FCC-estimated $3 billion in time lost to time businesses wasted dealing the calls. To stem the scammer tide, the FCC has proposed yet another restriction on robocalls. More about that in a minute.

TrueCaller Insights claims that in 2020 as many as 56 million Americans (22 percent) report they lost money as a result of a phone scam, up 30 percent from 2019’s 43 million people. That’s only the reported scam losses. Chances are, most people don’t report it, being too embarrassed to admit they got taken.

The Social Security scam, Robokiller reported, accounted for 14.2 percent of scam calls in 2020. You know, it’s the one where they say your Social Security Number has been cancelled because of illegal activity on it, so you need to send them a gift card before the police show up and arrest you. That one was followed closely by the vehicle warranty scam at 12.9 percent. Rounding out the top 10 are calls for reducing debt, computer and tech support, medical and prescriptions, vacation and timeshares, energy, solar, and utilities, lotteries, prizes and sweepstakes, money-making opportunities, home improvement and cleaning, and home security and alarms.

The FTC calls most scam calls “impostor calls,” where the caller “spoofs” a local number to try to get some poor sucker to answer the phone and fall for their fraud. We’ve all gotten them. I got so tired of my phone ringing that I set my phone to ring through only if it’s someone in my contact list. Anyone else can leave a message. Funny how the scammers almost never bother to leave one.

Spoofing is simple and cheap. All you need is a PBX (private branch exchange), Voice Over IP (VoiP), a specially configured base station, and some software that does the spoofing. Now you’re ready to scam and threaten people with arrest or get them to shell out for an extended auto warranty.

Because it’s harder to prosecute bad guys in foreign countries, most calls originate outside the United States with most calls coming from five countries: Costa Rica, Guatemala, India, Mexico, and The Philippines. Even so, when they do catch crooks, it’s fun to watch. A notable watch featured the arrest in India in October 2016 of people involved in the IRS scam. I remember the pictures of 750 workers perp walked to jail. Also arrested reported Forbes Oct. 6, 2016 were five people in Miami at about the same time for the same crime who were responsible for $2 million in fraudulent schemes that defrauded 1,500 victims.

Foreign call origination is easy and cheap, and done through “Gateway Providers.” Gateway Providers are those phone companies that offer cheap long distance service around the world for 1 cent to 2 cents per minute. It goes both directions, and so calls originating in a foreign country into the US can get the deals. Crooks set up calls with the Gateway Provider, run their VoiP through the calls, create the robocall script, spoof telephone numbers, and wait for the money to roll in from gift cards, cash cards, and credit cards.

The Federal Communication Commission wants to fix all that with the Fifth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking federal regulation they published on Sept. 9, 2021. The previous four hadn’t done much good; the calls not only didn’t slow down a bit but increased. The new rule aims to eliminate foreign robocalls. They explain, “Eliminating illegal robocalls that originate abroad is one of the most vexing challenges the Commission faces because of the difficulty in reaching foreign-based robocallers and the foreign voice service providers that originate their traffic. The proposals in the Further Notice would require the gateway providers that are the point of entry for foreign calls into the United States to take part in the fight against illegal robocalls originating abroad.”

At present, the FCC “requires all voice service providers to file certifications in the Robocall Mitigation Database regarding their efforts to fight illegal robocalls on their networks.” The FCC created the Robocall Mitigation Database to try to ensure that illegal robocalls don’t get through. That’s worked, hasn’t it? Voice service telephone companies must certify that they have taken the appropriate measures to block illegal robocalls on their networks with call authentication and block any and all calls that come from telephone companies that haven’t certified the Robocall Mitigation Database. But Gateway Providers go unmentioned.

All companies must block any calls that meet one or more of four criteria: “1) the subscriber to the number indicated that that number should never be used to originate calls; 2) the number is unallocated; 3) the number is unused; and/or 4) the number is invalid,” explains the FCC news release. Calls are allowed or blocked using the STIR/SHAKEN caller ID authentication, a system that “uses an encrypted authentication and verification process through the earliest carrier in the chain.” So, for example, if you make a call using your landline, the STIR/SHAKEN process would check to see if the number violates one of the four qualifications that would cause it to be blocked.

The new FCC proposal intends to stop those calls that originate outside the US by requiring Gateway Providers to use the Robocall Mitigation Database and STIR/SHAKEN to block calls. But the new provisions won’t start right away. In their Fifth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking they say, “that the public interest will be best served by not enforcing the foreign provider prohibition during the pendency of this proceeding.” How that serves the public interest they don’t say.

How long before the foreign calls are regulated? The FCC, fuzzy on that, says only when they’ve finished discussing the regulations and appropriate parties have had an opportunity to add their comments. Expect robocalls to continue; expect scammers to double down on their criminal activities; expect to continue to have our time wasted dealing with the calls; and expect the FCC to promise to do their best to come up with more ways to block those calls.

These new regulations are more nails in the robocall coffins, but these crooks are experts at pulling nails and finding new and more nefarious ways to cheat people.

By Robert L. Cain

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