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Robocalls are still out of control -- and aren't likely to stop in 2022

The Stir/Shaken technology designed to curb the flood of robocalls arrived in 2021. But the struggle continues.

Smartphone screen showing missed calls from "No Caller ID" numbers.

Millions of Americans don't answer calls from unknown numbers for fear they might be illegal robocalls. Many hoped that would change with a June 30 deadline from the FCC that required voice providers to implement technology to force callers to identify themselves. 

Thomas Trutschel/Getty Images

The US Federal Communications Commission upped its game in 2021 when it came to fighting illegal robocallers. But experts say the battle to end robocalls is far from over.

The FCC's deadline to implement technology to beat back annoying robocalls went into effect over the summer. As of June 30, every major voice provider in the US, including phone companies AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile and cable provider Comcast, was required to implement a technology, called Stir/Shaken, designed to curb the tide of spam calls by requiring voice providers to verify where calls are coming from. And in December, the agency moved up the deadline for many smaller providers to comply with this technology. 

But even though the crackdown has helped dampen the calls, scammers are back at work looking for ways to trick Americans into picking up the phone and handing over money.

"Stir/Shaken has shut down one avenue," said Clayton LiaBraaten, senior advisory board member at Truecaller, which makes a spam-blocking and caller ID app. "But it's making already very capable criminals even more sophisticated and sinister in their scams."

To help you get a handle on what Stir/Shaken has meant so far and what's next in the effort to stamp out robocalls, CNET has put together this FAQ.  

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Where are we now?

The hope of Stir/Shaken was that it would finally curb the flood of spam calls involving health-related scams, expiring car warranties that don't exist and fake banks offering bogus interest-rate discounts for credit cards. For years, the scourge of illegal robocalls has plagued the public. It's the No. 1 consumer complaint and a top priority at the FCC.

Since a peak in March 2021 when Americans got 4.9 billion robocalls, Stir/Shaken has helped curb the number of robocalls, according to YouMail, a company specializing in blocking robocalls. In November that figure was down to 4.1 billion calls for the month, YouMail said. Still, the volume of robocalls is rising again, and Americans are getting more than they did in November 2020, when 3.8 billion robocalls set phones ringing and buzzing.  

YouMail predicts that Americans are on pace to receive about 51 billion robocalls by year's end, up from 46 billion in 2020. 

Like a game of whack-a-mole, whenever regulators or law enforcement smack down one way that robocalls are made, scammers change tactics and use a different method. Experts say that's what is happening now as robocallers move away from using spoofed phone numbers made to look like a call is coming from a neighbor. Now they're buying lists of real phone numbers to trick spam-blocking software into letting the calls through. The problem is that buying lists of phone numbers from third-party data providers is legal, which makes it difficult for law enforcement to figure out who is buying these lists and using them for nefarious purposes. 

The real problem is that there's a lot of money to be made in scamming people, which is what continues to fuel criminals' efforts. In addition to being annoying, robocalls calls are costly. Nearly 60 million Americans say they've fallen victim to a phone scam in the past year, like the calls purporting to be from the IRS or from a company inquiring about an expiring warranty on a nonexistent car, according to a report from Truecaller. In total, Americans have been swindled out of more than $30 billion over the past 12 months, according to the survey conducted by TrueCaller and The Harris Poll. 

To be fair, not all robocalls are bad or annoying. Some businesses and public entities use robocalls to communicate important information. For example, your pharmacy may use an automated recording to tell you your prescription is ready to be picked up, or your kids' school may use one to alert you about a snow day. But legitimate robocalls require that consumers sign up to receive them. 

Then there are the illegal robocallers. Because robocalls are cheap to make scammers all over the world use them to defraud billions of dollars from Americans every year. The problem has gotten so bad that many of us don't answer the phone when it rings, especially if it's an unfamiliar number on the caller ID. All too often, scammers disguise their phone numbers to trick people into answering.

What's Stir/Shaken?

Stir/Shaken is a technology that ensures calls traveling through phone networks have their caller ID "signed" as legitimate by originating carriers and validated by other carriers before the calls reach you. In short, the technology authenticates a phone call's origin and makes certain the information on the caller ID matches.

What's 'caller ID spoofing'?

Spoofing is when callers disguise their identity by deliberately falsifying the information transmitted to your caller ID display. Scammers do this to make calls less easily traceable. Also, by using so-called neighbor spoofing, which makes it appear as though the number is a local one that you may already know or trust, scammers try to trick you into picking up a call.  

Is spoofing illegal?

Under the Truth in Caller ID Act, the FCC's rules prohibit any person or entity from transmitting misleading or inaccurate caller ID information with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongly obtain anything of value. Spoofing isn't illegal if there's no intent to cause harm. 

Illegal spoofers can face fines of up to $10,000 per violation of the law. 

Spoofing that's intended to hide identity can be permitted under certain circumstances. For example, law enforcement agencies working on cases, victims of domestic violence, or doctors wishing to discuss private medical matters may all be exempt from these rules.  

What's the Traced Act? How will that stop robocalls?

The Traced (Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence) Act of 2019 makes compliance with the Stir/Shaken technology mandatory for all voice service providers. 

The law directed the FCC to come up with rules to require voice providers to implement the technology within 18 months. 

What was the June 30 deadline about?

The FCC set a deadline of June 30 for companies that provide phone service to implement Stir/Shaken. Phone companies also had to publish robocall prevention strategies in a public database

What's happened since June 30? Has the deadline done anything to slow robocalls?

Experts like LiaBraaten say they're still analyzing the data to see whether Stir/Shaken has made a dent. 

"The early indications are that while we're seeing less 'neighbor' spoofing, we're not seeing an overall decrease in spam calls," he said.

LiaBraaten explained that scammers are using numbers that may not match a recipient's area code. The real question is whether people will still answer these calls, even if it doesn't look like the calls are coming from a neighbor or someone in their area code. 

But he and others say it's likely any decrease in robocalls initially will be just a blip as criminals adapt and find new methods. The sad truth is that making these calls is cheap and scamming people is lucrative. 

"It ends up being a game of whack-a-mole," FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said in an interview with CNET in May. "So the long-term solution is still difficult."

Are all carriers required to use Stir/Shaken?

Previously, the FCC had given small providers, those with fewer than 100,000 subscribers, until June 30, 2023, to implement Stir/Shaken. The extension would allow smaller providers to evaluate the implementation costs and plan deployment. But in December, the FCC pushed up the deadline by a year for some smaller providers, because the agency said there's evidence a large volume of illegal robocalls are coming from a subset of smaller providers.

What's the government been doing to stop illegal robocalls?

The Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission and the FCC have worked together to combat robocalls. In March 2020, the DOJ won an injunction against two internet telephone providers that allegedly transmitted hundreds of millions of calls to consumers. 

The FCC has stepped up its enforcement, sending cease-and-desist letters to carriers that facilitate scam calls and imposing fines on illegal robocallers. In one case, the FCC fined Texas telemarketers $225 million for spoofing roughly 1 billion robocalls. 

What's next in the fight to end robocalls?

Lawmakers in Congress are proposing legislation to impose stiffer penalties on illegal robocallers and fraudsters. Sens. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, and Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, introduced the Robocall Trace Back Enhancement Act. It would provide liability protections for privately led efforts to trace back the origins of illegal and abusive robocalls. The two Senate Commerce members had authored the Traced Act, which Congress passed in 2019 and which gave the FCC more powers to take on robocallers.

Regulators are vowing to step up enforcement. The FCC has proposed applying many of the same rules and technologies used to combat robocalls to text messaging, including requiring carriers to block illegal robotexts and applying caller authentication standards to text messaging.

A group of 51 attorneys general led by North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, and Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, a Republican, are calling on the FCC to reduce unwanted robocallers' access to real phone numbers.

LiaBraaten says Stir/Shaken will push more illegal robocallers outside the US, where a significant number of robocalls already originate. Combating this problem will require more cooperation among international carriers and regulators, which he admits is no easy task. But he thinks global leaders, international regulators and carriers throughout the world will be motivated to work together.

"That's a tall order trying to get a bunch of multilateral agreements in place," he said. "But this isn't just an American problem. It's a global problem. People are being defrauded all over the world." 

The FCC is addressing the issue. In October the agency voted to consider a proposal to close a loophole in FCC regulations to require "gateway providers" to stop robocalls before they get to your phone. The proposed regulation would put additional requirements on US-based gateway providers that pass voice traffic to other networks in the states. These gateway providers, which are smaller, low-profile companies that hand off calls from network to network, are often used by foreign scammers to disguise phone calls entering the US. The new FCC requirements would ensure that the gateway providers are verifying calls before they pass them on to other operators in the states. 

"With coordinated activity -- with many more mallets smacking this problem -- we're going to be more capable of bringing it to a stop," FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel said. "More of that federal-to-federal and federal-to-state coordination is going to be necessary in order for us to be successful."

"We're just getting started," she added. "We have more work to do, and we have a new vigor to make it happen."