How the world is responding to billions of “robocalls”

22nd Dec 2020

How many times have you answered a call to hear a recorded message rather than a real person? The message will often ask if you have been in an accident or are looking to roll all your debts into one. Using recorded messages (Robocalls) for marketing purposes is illegal in the UK – but they still happen.

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International calls are not covered by UK law, so they often make it through using sophisticated technology to make massive numbers of calls, many of which are scam related. Recorded message robocalls can remove up to 90% of the costs of running a call centre because there is no need for premises, hardware, office furniture and salaried staff. Scammers like nothing better than a super cheap way to make billions of calls (often simultaneously) in the hope of getting someone at the other end to pick up and trigger the scam.

The scale of robocalling is truly staggering.  According to Hiya over 600 million robocalls were received in 2019 by UK consumers as part of the 11 spam calls a month they receive.  The robocalling industry is a major challenge to telecoms companies around the world because it is eroding trust in the concept of a phone call from someone you don’t know.

Watch this 2min film from CNN which explains how the robocall industry affects the US. (The same story plays out in the UK):

With over 100,000 unwanted calls per minute (in the US) we are reaching a point in many of the world’s largest economies where over 80% of calls are going unanswered and legitimate non-marketing calls (such as recorded messages from a delivery company, a neighbourhood watch scheme or genuine market research companies) are being sent to voice mail or left to ring out. Businesses built on legal calling processes are struggling and there is a real economic cost in relation to jobs, salaries and taxes. These jobs have effectively become collateral damage as real businesses struggle to reach their customers.

So what is being done to counter this tidal wave of unwanted intrusions?

There is a global movement we want IPS members to be aware of called STIR and SHAKEN. It is backed by governments and all the major players in the Telco (Telecommunications) industry whose future is threatened by this clear and present danger.

Secure Telephone Identity Revisited (STIR) and Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using toKENs (SHAKEN) together, are a set of standards that provide a method to increase transparency and repair some of the damage and loss of trust.

We don’t want our newsletter and articles to become overly technical as we aim to provide simple advice and actions for you all to consider before making a positive change in your behaviours. You can read more detail about these solutions at the Wikipedia page but the takeaways for you to absorb are endorsed by OFCOM:

  • STIR is a new global technical standard to ensure that only legitimate calls with valid caller line identities reach the recipient, to help tackle spoofing and hiding of the real caller’s identity.
  • Trust will be restored when people can rely on the caller line identity being shown to them and make a more informed judgement on whether to answer the call.
  • The standard has been approved and a date for implementation in the UK is being considered.

STIR/SHAKEN will create a digital signature for known trusted calls (at their point of origin) in a way that cannot be tampered with. Before they reach your phone your telephone service provider checks for the presence of a digital signature and, if found, verifies it on your device. A tick box “approved and verified caller” icon alongside the name of the company (or person) who is making the call should appear. If it can’t be verified, then the tick box won’t be added and the advice will be for you not to answer it: you can have those calls automatically blocked or sent to your voice mail.

This approach should revive trust in the system. STIR/SHAKEN is actually a throwback to the pre-Internet age of telephone directories, where every bill paying subscriber was directly connected to their service provider. In those days the telephone network itself was a closed environment, where every call could be trusted to come from the caller it said it came from.

Today’s public telephone networks are based on very open technology, and fraudsters have exploited that openness to their profit and consumers’ loss.

IPS Summary

As with all our advice and alerts we will update IPS members over time. In this case the next major step will be an announcement from OFCOM on when STIR/SHAKEN will be implemented in the UK.
Remember all the scammers want you to do is to get you to pick up, listen and act. They will find ever more ingenious methods for tricking you into doing so. Always take a moment to think through what you are about to do and wonder “would a genuine company be asking me to do this”?

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