Imagine a world in which your cell phone was used as a method of routine communication with your loved ones, co-workers and acquaintances, and not – as they seem to have become in recent years – as a mere recipient for automated sham calls designed to steal your money. That’s just one aspect of a sunnier future that Gov. Andrew Cuomo imagined in his State of the State report for 2020, with a three-pronged proposal to combat the scourge of robocalls as the methods and technologies used by scammers continue to advance.
Cuomo’s proposal, along with the federal TRACED Act, recently signed into law by President Donald Trump, may help curb the pesky calls, but some experts say the measures proposed so far are inadequate to completely stop the scourge, partly because the technology that would be required under the proposed solutions is not wholly equipped to sort out “scam” robocalls from legitimate ones.
“Robocalls” can technically refer to any automated dialing system – whether it’s used to deliver a pre-recorded message from your pharmacy saying a prescription is ready for pickup or a pitch for donations from a charity. But the term has more or less become synonymous with scammers who use techniques like automated dialing and spoofing – deliberately disguising the phone number that a call originates from to match your area code, for example – to trick recipients into making payments to criminals or disclosing personal information like a Social Security number or usernames and passwords. As their techniques evolve, both federal officials, and those in New York like Cuomo, are trying to stay one step ahead of the robocall scammers.
Cuomo’s proposal, unveiled in late December, includes three main measures, the first of which would require telecommunications providers to supply call-blocking technology to customers. These kinds of technologies can be used to block spam calls, flag suspicious numbers and allow customers to report unsolicited calls. Some major carriers like Verizon have already offered similar services to customers free of charge, but others charge a premium to include the technology in a phone plan. Cuomo would require telecom providers to “deploy the best robocall blocking technology available to consumers by default,” and institute fines of up to $100,000 a day for those who fail to do so.
But some experts say that while these services are important steps to stopping robocalls, requiring telecoms to “block calls” or face penalties would be unfair. “How do you decide if a carrier failed to block calls? If they're going to deploy blocking technology, you need some way to measure if it's successful,” said Alex Quilici, chief executive of the call-blocking smartphone app YouMail. “Obviously, you could block every call and then that stops the robocall problem, but it also makes the phone unusable. Or you go the other way, and you block such a small number of calls it doesn't matter. I think forcing the carriers to do blocking technology, it's not super helpful because it's not well defined.”
The risk with some of this call blocking technology is that legitimate calls – like closing notices from public schools or emergency notifications, for example – will get flagged or blocked alongside the scam calls. “Most iPhones do have prompts for scams,” technologist Emil Skandul told City & State earlier this month. “The issue is that these work imperfectly and calls are flagged when they shouldn't be.” The Federal Communications Commission only recently allowed telecom providers to automatically block suspected spam calls, but some providers remain on the fence, citing the cost of implementing those services.
A second measure in Cuomo’s proposal would require telecom providers to implement a call-authenticating technology – known as the STIR/SHAKEN protocol – which is essentially meant to validate calls before they reach a customer, in an attempt to stop caller ID spoofing, much like what a new federal law requires. The federal TRACED Act, popular with both parties in Congress, was signed into law by Trump just one day before Cuomo unveiled his robocall crusade. Along with extending the statute of limitations on robocall offenses and raising potential fines, the TRACED Act requires adoption of the STIR/SHAKEN protocol.
“I think it's a good sized speed bump, but it's not a wall,” Quilici said of the TRACED Act. “If you imagine that the carriers have all implemented the (STIR/SHAKEN) protocol, it's harder for me as a bad guy to spoof a phone number and get through, because people will see the green checkmark for non-spoofed calls and not answer the ones I make.” But one issue with the protocol included in both the federal law and Cuomo’s proposal is the fact that it only works on calls transmitted on systems which use Internet Protocol to route calls. For carriers that still rely on analog technology, the cost of switching over to IP could be high.
The last part of Cuomo’s proposal would raise fines on those who violate the state’s Do Not Call list – a registry on which people can opt out of unsolicited telemarketing calls – doubling the current maximum fine for violators to $22,000, from $11,000. But experts also raise issues with the Do Not Call registry, as it’s not seen as much of a deterrent to criminals. “The Do Not Call list is like mandating everybody in a high crime area to put a 'no trespassing' sign on their front door or the front of their property,” Quilici said, arguing that it’s not the scammers trying to get cash and Social Security numbers who obey it, but the garden variety, annoying telemarketing company. “The good guys are already obeying it, and the bad guys are going to burglarize their house. That's the least of their worries.” Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Others have raised concerns that enforcing fines on violators of the state Do Not Call list – and the national Do Not Call registry – is difficult. “This legislation will only work if the penalties are enforced,” Skandul said. “Federal penalties do exist, but the lack of enforcement have made them symbolic.” For one thing, tracking down scammers can take a lot of time, and the federal government hasn’t collected on a majority of penalties that it’s ordered against those who break the law.
So is New York – and the country at large – really just looking at slapping a variety of Band-Aids on the robocall problem in the coming years? Are we doomed to live in fear of accidentally picking up a spam call forever – or more likely, live in fear that an older relative or unwitting victim will fall prey to a scam? Maybe not. Quilici likened the issue of robocalls to spam emails – a problem that still exists, to be sure, but one that may not be as much of a daily bother as it was in the early 2000s, as awareness and technology have improved to avoid or weed out shady messages.
As for building a stronger defense against scam robocalls, Quilici suggested it’s just a matter of putting the building blocks together to get to a place where robocalls are considered a once in a while annoyance – instead of an incessant one. “I view it like building a house. It just takes a while and has a lot of different pieces before you're done with the house,” he said. “There's a lot of different pieces that I think will get better and better over time, and we'll start impacting the problem in the same way that anti-virus (software) got good and we saw email spam detection get good. It just takes a while.”