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The Robocall Nightmare May Soon Be More Like One of Those Weird Dreams Where You Go to School but Forgot to Wear Pants. You Know, Weird but Not That Bad.

Phone companies have until Wednesday to rollout new protocols designed to weed out bad actors. It's probably best to curb your enthusiasm, however.

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Image for article titled The Robocall Nightmare May Soon Be More Like One of Those Weird Dreams Where You Go to School but Forgot to Wear Pants. You Know, Weird but Not That Bad.
Photo: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP (Getty Images)

Major phone companies and other voice providers have only a matter of days to implement a new caller ID verification system designed to rid Americans of that dreaded auditory plague, the robocall.

The Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act (TRACED Act), which was passed in 2019, requires that voice providers adopt a new suite of protocols and procedures, dubbed STIR and SHAKEN, designed to authenticate caller ID and weed out fraudsters who illegally spoof calls to target mobile users. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission sent out a reminder, notifying relevant companies—including the likes of Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T—that they have until June 30th to implement STIR/SHAKEN or risk failing to comply with the new federal regulation.


Obviously, this is good news. Automated calls and texts, often designed to sell you garbage, steal your identity, or rip you off, are so bad that today most Americans have just stopped answering their phones unless they recognize the person calling. While not all robocalls are illegal (political campaigns use them legally and local governments often employ them for PSAs), most of them are unequivocally annoying—the digital equivalent of a shady salesman showing up on your doorstep. Since their emergence in the 1990s, robocalls have only continued to grow as a trend: in 2019, Americans received some 58.5 billion of them, which represented an increase of 22 percent from the previous year. That number dipped slightly last year, but it’s still in the same ballpark. On the whole, consumers lose billions of dollars a year to robo-related scams.

The TRACE Act will hopefully help mitigate this trend. In essence, the framework of protocols it introduces will help to further verify whether a caller is who they say they are. This is important because, in most illegal robocalls, bad actors will spoof their connection—meaning they use obfuscation techniques to falsify their caller ID information. The fake number they employ is often designed to encourage the victim to pick up the phone, with fraudsters often spoofing a nearby area code or pretending to be an official from a government agency.


The specific protocols and framework that TRACE introduces essentially force carriers to take part in a multi-stage verification process. STIR, which stands for Secure Telephony Identity Revisited, and SHAKEN—the Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using tokens—are designed so that calls traveling through a phone network must be “signed” and validated by carriers in order to establish their legitimacy. This process is designed to take place before a call ever reaches a person’s phone.

Critics have noted, however, that this program may not be the robocall purge we’ve all been hoping for. Indeed, a lot of companies have already been implementing STIR/SHAKEN for a while (Verizon, for example, recently announced its rollout), so it’s unclear whether what happens on Wednesday will truly be a huge sea-change when it comes to bad actors, or whether it’ll merely be a more imperceptible, statistical sort of shift. Still, we can dream, right?