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Hanging up on Robocalls

Consumers are begging and complaining to the FCC for relief from unsolicited calls.

The call comes in and you recognize the area code, so you answer it. Is it a friend, or a pesky robocall about to waste your time?

Annoying robocalls. Calls for health insurance. Car warranties. Calls for solar energy.

Although many phone companies have blocking programs consumers can use, unsolicited calls still get through.

Now, a $100 million solution is in the works.

“Yeah, it’s frustrating!" says Megan Stanley whose phone began ringing with a robocall as our interview commenced.

Stanley is a recent college grad, and she says robocalls are making her job search even more challenging.

She says she is waiting for prospective employers to call, and answers each random number as politely as she can.

“Especially if I applied to a job the day before, and I’m super-excited about it. It’s really disappointing. It (the robocall) gives me anxiety even if I don’t answer it, even if I know it’s a fake call.”

If you’re looking for the federal government to crack down on robocalls with a modern day, "Do-not-call" list; think again.

Instead, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), phone companies, and tech experts are teaming up to provide a number-screening program known as STIR/SHAKEN.

"It’s a complex problem," says Jim McEachern, principal technologist for the Allliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS).

ATIS, whose members come from various global companies like Google and AT&T, is standardizing and testing STIR/SHAKEN with some cell carriers right now in a trial run. (STIR/SHAKEN stands for Secure Telephony Identity Revisited and Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs, for what it's worth.)

"The telephone network is a complex machine with multiple providers and networks. It touches a lot of service providers, vendors, and so it's very important we think this through carefully and create something that is flexible enough to respond," McEachern says.

Here’s how it works: Since calls usually pass through multiple carriers on their way to your phone, STIR/SHAKEN tries to authenticate those calls - bypassing the fake caller IDs, past all the tricks, to get to the origin of the call. It assigns a "digital signature" or fingerprint to the call, and the program then makes a determination whether the call is real or fraudulent.

McEachern says look for the release of STIR/SHAKEN in the first quarter of 2019. But, don't expect it to be bullet-proof.

"The bad guys will exploit any flaws and vulnerabilities in the system," says McEachern.

That's why McEachern believes this industry-led initiative works better than having the FCC create regulations: it allows the industry the flexibility to respond and patch holes in STIR/SHAKEN quickly and without having to go through any government process.

"Competition among carriers is taking a back seat as we tackle this problem that affects all networks," he adds.

In the meantime, Vivian Ralena Williams has her own method to deal with the unsolicited calls. The dancer says her work takes her to auditions and performances across the country, and calls from unfamiliar area codes surface on her iPhone every week.

“Honestly, I just press ignore, and just forward it straight to my voicemail, and then delete the messages that they leave,” said Williams.

STIR/SHAKEN is expected to make a huge difference by covering more than 90 percent of all phones, including landlines… if you still have one of those.

If you like to join the conversation, contact Joe Conger on Facebook, Twitter, or simply email him here.

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