Beware of the Law of Unintended Consequences

At its open meeting on June 6, 2019, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) approved a robocall blocking related agenda item entitled Declaratory Ruling and Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FCC-CIRC1906-01). This ruling allows mobile phone service carriers to block robocalls to their customers, by default, after determining such calls are unwanted and/or illegal. The ruling also cautions against carriers interfering with emergency communications by blocking such calls. Although the ruling does not explicitly state so, the implication is that calls from emergency telephone numbers should not be blocked by carriers.

Scammers are Persistent and Adaptable

The law of unintended consequences may be rearing its ugly head. In the recent past, scammers would generate illegal robocalls by spoofing unassigned or invalid telephone numbers. If you received such a call and tried to call back that number, you would receive an announcement indicating the number was not in service. Subsequently, the FCC allowed carriers to block calls that originated from such unassigned or invalid telephone numbers. After all, why should any legitimate call originate from an unassigned or invalid telephone number? The scammers then evolved to using, instead, a single assigned telephone number for all their calls. However, carriers began to employ algorithms to identify when a single number originated a large number of calls and would block these calls. But scammers are persistent and adaptable, and migrated to a technique called “neighbor spoofing.” This is when scammers use a variation of the called party’s number on every call. So, if your number is, e.g., 404-555-1212, the scammers will indicate a calling party number that is similar, e.g., 404-555-1234. This way, you think it is a neighbor who is calling you. I daresay that all of us regularly receive these calls and they are extremely annoying. And they are difficult to detect without ‘over-blocking’ to include legitimate local calls.

Assuming techniques are developed to block these calls, we can expect that scammers will evolve their tactics again. The FCC has stated that carriers are to avoid blocking any emergency calls. So, scammers merely have to use emergency numbers to avoid blocking. Once that happens, we have a real problem of distinguishing whether an incoming call from a school or hospital is related to a potential emergency or from a scammer.

SHAKEN/STIR to the Rescue

Once SHAKEN/STIR technology is available, which identifies when a number is spoofed, such spoofed emergency calls could be distinguished from real emergency calls. Until that technology is available, we are at risk of scammers using emergency numbers. Such robocalls will not be blocked, or if they are, then emergency calls could be blocked. Neither is a good outcome.

No one has provided a good answer as to how this problem is to be addressed without using SHAKEN/STIR. The FCC appears to have avoided addressing this issue in its ruling. Let’s hope the law of unintended consequences does not cause a public safety risk.

The opinions presented here are those of Karl Koster, and not necessarily those of Noble Systems. The contents should not be construed as legal advice nor as comments reflecting any regulatory position of Noble Systems.

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