Robo­calls not easy to block

Tele­mar­keters and scam­mers keep find­ing sneaky ways to get past your de­fenses

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - DAVID LAZARUS David Lazarus’ col­umn runs Tues­days and Fri­days. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Chan­nel 5 and fol­lowed on Twit­ter @David­laz. Send your tips or feed­back to david.lazarus@la­times.com.

Tele­mar­keters keep find­ing ways to get past de­fenses, David Lazarus says.

Want to know who’s to blame for all those an­noy­ing robo­calls dur­ing din­ner? Nathan Kings­bury, that’s who.

He was the AT&T vice pres­i­dent who signed his name to a 1913 let­ter pledg­ing that the com­pany would open its net­work to other phone ser­vices. The so-called Kings­bury Com­mit­ment set­tled an an­titrust case brought by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and paved the way for the mod­ern phone sys­tem.

“Be­cause of Kings­bury, we were able to have more than one phone com­pany,” said Eric Burger, a com­puter science pro­fes­sor and direc­tor of Ge­orge­town Uni­ver­sity’s Cen­ter for Se­cure Com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

“That’s a good thing,” he said. “But also be­cause of him, AT&T and Ver­i­zon are re­quired by law to de­liver any call that reaches their net­works.”

That’s one rea­son robo­calls keep get­ting through. An­other is that, thanks to tech­nol­ogy that can trick caller ID sys­tems, tele­mar­keters and scam­mers keep find­ing sneaky ways to get past your de­fenses.

The head of the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion last week pro­posed new rules in­tended to cut down on the num­ber of robo­calls both­er­ing peo­ple.

A key change is to clear up any con­fu­sion over whether phone com­pa­nies are al­lowed to block robo­calls, just as In­ter­net ser­vice providers try to block spam email.

“We are giv­ing the green light for robo­call-block­ing tech­nol­ogy,” FCC Chair­man Tom Wheeler said. “The FCC wants to make it clear: Tele­phone com­pa­nies can — and in fact should — of­fer con­sumers robo­call-block­ing tools.”

Prob­lem solved? Not hardly.

Burger is a for­mer tele­com en­tre­pre­neur who now spe­cial­izes in net­work-se­cu­rity is­sues. He’s about as knowl­edge­able as any­one re­gard­ing what phone com­pa­nies can and can’t do to keep tele­mar­keters and scam­mers at bay.

It would take leg­isla­tive or reg­u­la­tory ac­tion to tweak the Kings­bury Com- mit­ment and al­low car­ri­ers to block ques­tion­able calls from other phone com­pa­nies, Burger said.

Un­til then, a tele­mar­keter or scam­mer any­where in the world could use some fly-by-night phone com­pany to gain ac­cess to the ma­jor net­works.

Then there’s the even big­ger prob­lem of spoof­ing. This is a prac­tice in which a caller ID sys­tem is tricked into think­ing that a call is orig­i­nat­ing from some­where else.

So the call might be from a tele­mar­keter in the Mid­west, or the Mideast for that mat­ter, but your caller ID might show it as be­ing from the lo­cal po­lice depart­ment, or a nearby hos­pi­tal, or some­one in your neigh­bor­hood.

“The whole point of spoof­ing is to get you to pick up the phone,” Burger said.

And here’s the catch: It’s not il­le­gal.

The fed­eral Truth in Caller ID Act makes it a crime to use a bo­gus phone num­ber or caller ID mes­sage to com­mit fraud or cause harm to oth­ers. But it’s not against the law to en­gage in what courts have called “non-harm­ful spoof­ing.”

Ex­am­ples of non-harm­ful spoof­ing would in­clude a shel­ter that masks its phone num­ber to pro­tect vic­tims of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence or a psy­chi­a­trist hid­ing his num­ber from a po­ten­tially danger­ous pa­tient.

Tele­mar­keters ex­ploit this loop­hole by say­ing they’re not re­ally harm­ing any­one, so it’s also OK for them to spoof.

Lind­say Hut­ter, se­nior vice pres­i­dent of the Di­rect Mar­ket­ing Assn., said her trade group works with fed­eral au­thor­i­ties to en­sure that “un­scrupu­lous com­pa­nies” aren’t spoof­ing num­bers “to de­ceive or harm in­di­vid­u­als.”

“Re­spon­si­ble tele­mar­keters use caller ID for trans­parency and to clearly iden­tify to the cus­tomer who is call­ing them,” she said.

Pa­trick Do­herty, 70, a res­i­dent of Cherry Val­ley in River­side County, said he’s tried re­port­ing robo­callers to the Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion, keeper of the na­tional do-not-call list. He’s tried re­port­ing them to his phone com­pany, Ver­i­zon Com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Noth­ing has helped. The calls, he said, keep com­ing daily.

“They just don’t quit,” Do­herty said. “Thou­sands of peo­ple are prob­a­bly be­ing ag­gra­vated ev­ery day by th­ese jerks.”

I reached out to AT&T and Ver­i­zon to ask what tech­nolo­gies they may be cooking up to block robo­calls, now that the FCC has taken off their leashes. Both com­pa­nies de­clined to com­ment, which isn’t very en­cour­ag­ing.

An FCC spokesman said he wasn’t aware of any spe­cific tech­nolo­gies that phone com­pa­nies may be pur­su­ing.

Con­sumers aren’t en­tirely help­less. Ser­vices such as Nomorobo, Pri- va­cyS­tar and Truecaller can re­duce robo­call vol­ume, if your phone com­pany will al­low them (you’ll need to check).

How­ever, th­ese ser­vices rely pri­mar­ily on black­lists of banned num­bers to stop robo­calls from get­ting through. All a clever tele­mar­keter has to do is spoof a dif­fer­ent num­ber and he’s back in busi­ness.

“We see it all the time,” ac­knowl­edged Aaron Foss, Nomorobo’s founder. “Robo­callers will change their num­ber ev­ery few hours.”

So two cheers to the FCC for say­ing more needs to be done to put the ki­bosh on robo­calls. But at this point, that’s about all they’re say­ing.

That’s not all

Want more? I’m also writ­ing a busi­ness newsletter that ar­rives in in­boxes ev­ery Mon­day. To sign up, go to www.la­times.com/ cal­i­for­ni­ainc.

Jose Luis Magana As­so­ci­ated Press

FCC CHAIR­MAN Tom Wheeler pro­posed new rules to cut down on the num­ber of robo­calls.

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