Peer Pressure

Verizon to Fight “Robocallers” with Free Blocking Service

Every year in the US, billions of illegal so-called robocalls are made to fixed and wireless lines. Spammers use automated systems to bombard a long list of recipients, often hiding behind spoofed numbers to give the impression that it’s a call from a local phone number. This has become an aggravation to millions of subscribers that doesn’t just rob them of time, but in some cases, money.

Although carriers have been offering services to counter automated and spam calls, controversially, some have been charging a monthly fee for what many believe should be a basic protective service.

Last week, Verizon announced that its spam-blocking service would be free for all its wireless customers starting in March 2019. This is a clear case of peer pressure causing a company to change tack: Verizon had been providing features to stop unwanted automated calls as an optional service for about $3 per month, while rivals AT&T and T-Mobile have offered similar tools for free for about two years (see Robocall Crackdown).

Sprint has its own call-blocking service, priced at about $3 a month, but we expect it to take a leaf of Verizon’s book and drop the fee. Moves to offer these tools for free are a welcome development for subscribers, but it will be a detriment to companies such as Hiya and Nomorobo, which have built businesses on call filtering.

Ajit Pai, chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission, has been urging the industry to speed up deployment of authentication standards known as STIR, or Secure Telephone Identity Revisited, and SHAKEN, that is, Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using tokens. These protocols use digital certificates, based on common public key cryptography techniques, to ensure the source of the call is legitimate and secure. The certificate technology enables phone service providers to verify that the number is accurate and hasn’t been spoofed.

US carriers are in the process of expanding their call-blocking services using these standards. Last week, T-Mobile introduced another free initiative. Nam Caller Verified, this is the first in the industry to adopt the STIR and SHAKEN technology. Initially the service is only available for the Samsung Galaxy Note9, but will be rolled out on more smartphones later in 2019. Other carriers can also be expected to launch advanced authentication systems to deter spammers.

To their credit, carriers do make significant efforts behind the scenes to prevent automated calls from reaching customers, but it’s a well-known frustration that spammers often find a way around.