AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and other telecom giants want to tamp down on the scourge of robocalls.
Americans are getting bombarded with unwanted phone calls about everything from fake charities and security services to fraudulent tax collectors. More than 47.8 billion robocalls were made in 2018 alone, both legal and illegal — a 57% increase over the previous year, according to YouMail, a third-party robocall blocking software company. New voice-masking technologies cold also be making the calls more dangerous.
Verizon plans to make its spam detection and blocking app free for its wireless customers in the next few days. AT&T and Comcast also recently announced that they tested a new tool for identifying "spoofed" calls, which have allowed robocallers use fake numbers. Most major telecom companies plan to put the new technology to use by the end of the year.
Comedian John Oliver, host of HBO's "Last Week Tonight," blasted regulators during his show earlier this month for not doing more to combat the issue. He pledged to hound the US Federal Communications Commission with robocalls of his own design until they addressed the problem. (HBO, like CNN, is owned by AT&T.)
FCC chairman Ajit Pai had already ramped up pressure on the industry to address the problem on its own.
Companies are taking the problem "extremely seriously," says Jim McEachern, a senior technology consultant at telecom industry association ATIS.
Verizon announced in January that it planned to stop charging users for an app that can identify and block malicious robocalls and spam. It's expected to make that move official in the next few days. The app, which previously cost about $3 per month, will be free to download on iPhone and Android devices.
Its competitors, including AT&T and T-Mobile, offer similar services and apps.
But there's a problem: The apps flag and filter calls based on whether the incoming phone number is listed in a database of known spammers, and that database is extremely unreliable, McEachern said.
It was cobbled together based on which numbers customers have complained about. But spammers and fraudsters have long been able to use a technique called "spoofing" to mask their numbers from caller IDs and make it look like they're calling from somewhere else, even your own phone number.
That means some legitimate phone numbers have ended up in the database, while bad actors have been able to slip by spam blockers.
A new tool that AT&T and Comcast successfully tested last week aims to tackle that issue. Called "SHAKEN/STIR," a James Bond reference, the program aims to identify which calls are spoofed and which are placed directly between two customers. Companies will work together to verify calls across the industry, so that a person using an AT&T wireless phone, for example, can be verified when they call a Comcast landline.
Verizon is expected to announce Thursday that it will be the first company to roll out "SHAKEN/STIR" on its wireless network, a spokesperson said.
FCC commissioner Pai wants telecom companies across the board to roll out the technology by the end of the year. A long list of providers have committed to doing so.
"If these tools are not implemented this year, we are committed to taking regulatory action," an FCC spokesperson told CNN Business in an email Wednesday.
But experts say none of these tools offer a wholesale solution to the robocall problem.
Some legitimate callers use spoofing: Workplaces, for example, often spoof outgoing calls to look like they're coming from a 1-800 number or to mask an employees' direct extension. So the industry will still rely on customers to report which calls are coming from spammers.
But it will build a "concrete foundation" for better combating the problem in the future, said McEachern, the consultant at ATIS, which is spearheading "SHAKEN/STIR" development. It will allow the industry to make drastic improvement to the database of blacklisted phone numbers, he said, and improve robocall blocking over time.
"I liken it to email spam," McEachern told CNN Business. "There was a time when basically everyone was predicting that email would be useless because you wouldn't be able to find your real messages, but a number of new techniques and standards were implemented, and slowly they began to stop the growth."
McEachern predicts that it will take about three to five years before robocalls are considered a thing of the past. And even then, the industry will have to stay vigilant about addressing new technologies.
"Will fraudsters be able to find workarounds? Of course they will," he said.