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FCC chief tells phone companies to crack down on robocalls, or else. Sort of

FCC chief tells phone companies to crack down on robocalls, or else. Sort of
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says if the telecom industry doesn't roll out technology to reduce "spoofed" robocalls, "then we will take action to make sure that it does.” (Associated Press)

The head of the Federal Communications Commission got on his high horse this week and told phone companies they better do something about robocalls. Or else.

“Combating illegal robocalls is our top consumer priority at the FCC,” Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement after submitting letters to leading telecom and tech companies telling them to get with the program.

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He said they need to implement technology that can identify robocalls before they make it to people’s phones, often via “spoofing” that misleads Caller ID systems.

“By this time next year, I expect that consumers will begin to see this on their phones,” Pai said. “If it does not appear that this system is on track to get up and running next year, then we will take action to make sure that it does.”

Really?

I asked Mark Wigfield, an FCC spokesman, if that means Pai will lower the boom with tough-love regulatory requirements or penalties.

“We have no speculation on any next steps or whether they will be needed at this time,” he replied.

So when Pai vows to “take action,” what he really means, apparently, is that he’ll think about doing something, maybe. Or not.

I’m figuring this is little more than posturing from an FCC chief who has adopted a decidedly more industry-friendly tone than his Democratic predecessor. I wrote the other day about how Pai threw out plans to reduce the cost of set-top cable boxes.

Still, points for Pai (say that three times fast) for highlighting what a pain in the tuchis robocalls have become. The majority of calls to my home landline are robocalls. And recent weeks have seen my office and cellphone lines similarly bombarded.

The numbers are horrific.

According to Irvine tech firm YouMail, which makes robocall-blocking software, 5.1 billion robocalls were placed nationwide in October.

That’s more than 170 million a day, 7 million an hour, 2,000 per second.

The average American received about 16 robocalls last month, which seems like a lowball figure, if you ask me.

Los Angeles is among the top five cities being blitzed with robocalls, receiving nearly 172 million last month, up 17% from September. Only Atlanta, Dallas and New York received more.

The San Francisco Bay Area received 92 million robocalls last month. San Diego got 58 million. Sacramento 43 million.

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“It’s clearly an epidemic,” said Alex Quilici, YouMail’s chief executive. “It’s gaining because it’s extremely easy for scammers to do. It’s almost unstoppable.”

Robocalls aren’t just an annoyance. They’ve become a threat to economic productivity and general mental health.

They’re now such a plague that few people I know even answer their landlines anymore. All calls are either filtered through services such as NoMoRobo or sent straight to answering machines.

Think about that — owning a phone and never answering it. It’s like owning a car and never driving it. Maybe that makes sense on a just-in-case basis, but it’s still a big waste of money.

I’m old enough to remember when getting a phone call was usually a good thing. Heck, it could have been “Dialing for Dollars.” (Ask your parents, millennials.)

Thanks to spoofing, you just can’t tell. Sneaky robocallers can make a call look like it’s from your neighbor, or a local school, or the cops.

That’s what Pai is talking about when he says phone companies need to roll out technology that ensures every call is from who it’s supposed to be from.

The tech is called Shaken/Stir, and it’s an acronym that engineers came up with so they could smirk about making a geeky James Bond reference.

As I’ve previously reported, a Shaken/Stir system issues a digital “token” at the outset of a call. That token is verified when the call reaches its intended recipient. If the tokens match, the call receives a thumbs-up on your cellphone or Caller ID screen.

A spoofed call wouldn’t pass muster and would receive a thumbs-down, and the recipient would know not to bother answering.

So why aren’t we already enjoying Shaken/Stir? Because it’s pricey.

It will cost millions of dollars to implement the system industrywide, and the country’s thousands of phone-service providers would rather not cut into their profits just so customers can, you know, have a better customer experience.

AT&T recently told me it’s “working to implement a new industry standard” with Shaken/Stir, but that sounds decidedly like that company isn’t going to eat the cereal until Mikey eats the cereal. (Again, millennials, ask your parents.)

Frontier Communications said the company is “actively engaged with industry efforts and the FCC to combat this growing problem,” which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of Shaken/Stir.

The FCC says Pai won’t tolerate any lollygagging.

“Chairman Pai expects this effort to move forward as quickly as possible to protect consumers,” the agency said.

“Industry has been making progress, but success requires sustained investment in this next-generation call authentication standard. If industry starts to fall behind, the commission stands ready to ensure widespread deployment to hit this important technological milestone.”

Stands ready. Um, OK.

YouMail’s Quilici told me he’s generally hopeful. He thinks phone companies will get their act together and it’s possible consumers will see some robocall relief by next year.

But don’t expect robocalls to be eradicated entirely. Like email spam, service providers will stop much if not most of it but not all.

“Hopefully robocalls will get to the point where they’re just a minor annoyance, like how the occasional spam for Viagra ends up being a minor annoyance in your inbox,” Quilici said.

That’s the yardstick for success, the Viagra spam standard?

I can live with that.

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