New technology blocks robocalls before they reach your phone

PITTSBURGH — If you’ve got a phone, it’s almost certain you’ve received a robocall.

“I hate them. Can I say that? It’s awful. It’s awful,” said Canan Guler, who was visiting Market Square in downtown Pittsburgh.

She’s not alone.

Lee Harvey, in town from Texas for a bodybuilding competition, agreed the calls are annoying.

“It’s like a fly. It’s like an annoying fly, and you just want to swat it away,” Harvey said.

Shaking things up

Robocalls have been driving us all crazy for years and, unfortunately, the battle to stop them has been a challenge. Now, a new tool to fight robocalls is offering some hope.

The so-called STIR/SHAKEN technology was deployed by major phone carriers at the beginning of July as a requirement by the Federal Communications Commission. (STIR is an acronym created by the federal government, which stands for Secure Telephony Identity Revisited. SHAKEN stands for Secure Handling of Asserted information using ToKENs.)

Now, one month into the mandatory use of STIR/SHAKEN, 11 Investigates whether it’s actually helping to stop those annoying calls.

Technology targets ID spoofing

Whether it’s auto-warranties or fake calls from the IRS, we get an estimated 4 billion robocalls a month in the U.S., and most of us want just one thing:

“Just stop; just stop. Please!” Guler said.

Fraudsters have become skilled at using automated technology to spoof caller IDs to look like numbers coming from trusted entities, such as the IRS, charities, tech companies and even neighbors.

STIR/SHAKEN works to flag those calls so that phone companies can block them.

“The idea behind this new technology is essentially to confirm a phone number before it’s connected,” said CNET Editor-at-Large Ian Sherr.

The technology makes it possible for phone companies to confirm whether calls on their networks are really coming from the number on your screen. If the identity doesn’t match, the call is blocked and never makes it to your phone.

Spoofed calls, unfortunately, have been effective in tricking victims to not only answer but also give their money.

“We’ve all had those days where we are vulnerable and, you know, the reality is that these people, that is how they get their money is preying on your vulnerability,” Sherr said.

A new report by Truecaller estimates Americans have lost nearly $30 billion over the past year to robocall scams.

Is STIR/SHAKEN working?

Most consumers 11 Investigates talked with in downtown Pittsburgh had not heard about SITR/SHAKEN but welcome anything that might help.

“I’d love it!” said Harvey.

You don’t have to do anything to get the STIR/SHAKEN technology on your phone. The major phone companies, like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and others, have it built in their networks for free.

Carriers were required to implement STIR/SHAKEN as of July 1. And so far, it appears to be helping — at least a little bit.

“You know, now that you say it, I do feel like they’ve decreased!” said Lydia Wudarczyk, who said she used to get robocalls every day on both her work and personal phones.

11 Investigates checked with the FCC. The agency found for most of the month of July, complaints about “unwanted calls” are down about 10%.

“From July 1 through July 21, 2020, we received over 9,200 unwanted call complaints from consumers. During the same window in 2021, we received over 8,300 such complaints,” the FCC told 11 Investigates in an email.

“Now that I think about it, it could be getting a little bit less,” Ed Fraticelli of McMurray told 11 Investigates.

What can you do?

Unfortunately, it’s going to take more than just STIR/SHAKEN to stop robocalls completely.

“It’s going to be a long fight,” Sherr said. “The reality is that these scammers can still call you. They just can’t spoof who they are as easily anymore.”

So we all have to do our part to deter the scammers. That means avoid answering calls from numbers you don’t know and, if you do have to answer, hang up when you realize it’s a robocall.

“You can’t fall for these schemes. Because we’ll put them out of business tomorrow if we all stop falling for it,” Sherr said.

Here are tips from the FCC on how to handle robocalls:

  • Don’t answer calls from unknown numbers. Let them go to voicemail.
  • If the caller claims to be from a legitimate company or organization, hang up and call back using a valid number found on its website or on your latest bill if you do business with it.
  • If you answer and the caller (often a recording) asks you to press a button to stop receiving calls or asks you to say “yes” in response to a question, just hang up. Scammers often use these tricks to identify and then target live respondents or use your “yes” to apply unauthorized charges on your bill.
  • Be aware: Caller ID showing a “local” number no longer means it is necessarily a local caller.
  • If you answer and the caller asks for payment using a gift card, it’s likely a scam. Legitimate organizations like law enforcement will not ask for payment with a gift card.
  • If you receive a scam call, file a complaint with the FCC Consumer Complaint Center by selecting the “phone” option and selecting “unwanted calls.” The data we collect helps the FCC track trends and supports enforcement investigations.
  • If you have lost money because of a scam call, contact your local law enforcement agency for assistance.

Robocall Blocker Apps

For added protection, you can also download a robocall blocker app on your phone, but some do charge a small monthly fee. Here is a list of some of the best-rated robocall blocking apps:

  • HIYA - Hiya identifies and blocks unknown callers. It also can send alerts to your phone, warning you of threats.
  • Nomorobo - Nomorobo detects suspected robocalls and compares them to phone numbers on its blacklist. Then it blocks suspected spam calls and allows legitimate calls to go through.
  • Robokiller - After flagging a caller as spam, RoboKiller blocks the number and sends it to its “Answer Bots,” a feature that plays prerecorded messages to trick telemarketers and other unsolicited callers into thinking they’re speaking to a real person.
  • Truecaller - Truecaller identifies unknown numbers, spam or companies calling before picking up. It allows you to block numbers and auto-block telemarketers and robocalls.