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Fixing phone fraud is the killer app for telcos

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As a consumer, I barely use my mobile phone for “talking” anymore, which makes me wonder if I should even call it a phone. Though it rings all of the time, I never answer it. Why? Because 9 times out of 10, it’s a robocall or some sort of telemarketer. And I’m not the only one who ignores those incoming calls:

No one picks up the phone anymore. Even many businesses do everything they can to avoid picking up the phone. Of the 50 or so calls I received in the last month, I might have picked up four or five times. The reflex of answering—built so deeply into people who grew up in 20th-century telephonic culture—is gone.

Why No One Answers Their Phone Anymore, Alexis C. Madrigal for The Atlantic (May 31, 2018)
woman using 5G network
Ugh. Another number I don’t recognize. Ignore!

I’ve read multiple reports that “millennials” are the ones ruining talking on the phone, but, in reality, they just have an aversion to talking with strangers:

They aren’t the only ones feeling this way. The bombardment of spam calls is making “reaching out and touching someone” very dicey and, rather than picking up the phone and dialling, I find myself sending an SMS or messaging through an app to initiate conversations. As someone who doesn’t trust incoming calls any longer, I assume others don’t either.

This leads to a couple of issues. Number one, I’ve missed important calls, and number two, it’s driven me deeper into the use of third-party applications for messaging, calling, and video conferencing. I have control over my settings there and their more closed environments help me regulate who can contact me. This should worry communications service providers deeply as a decline in mobile voice usage can lead to a decline in the need for a mobile carrier.

When they stop trusting the phone network, they stop using it.

Jim McEachern, principal technologist at the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS), in NYMag (May 16, 2018)

But there ARE ways to combat this beyond consumers themselves purchasing apps to solve the issue and we need the communications service providers to lead the way.

Four ways for telcos to fight fraud

1Plug the holes created by VoIP that allowed for the spoofing and spamming in the first place. If you want to hear a fascinating history of how we got into this robocall mess in the first place, Vox’s Sean Rameswaram does a fantastic deep dive on a Today, Explained podcast entitled, All my friends are robocalls.

In a nutshell, all of the cool technology that was created to make communications easier and more convenient for you and I also made abuse of the system easier and more convenient too.

As Light Reading has covered extensively, for the past five years, the major telcos have been coming together to combat this issue and have proposed an interesting approach to fighting spam calls and spoofing called the STIR and SHAKEN standard. The idea is to screen incoming calls through a verification solution, sort of like the Twitter blue checkmark:

You can tell it’s really me because I have the blue checkmark.

According to NY Magazine, this is how the standard works:

Someone would place an outbound call. That call would contain a certificate verifying that the call is indeed coming from the number it claims to be coming from. The phone call is passed along to the incoming carrier (e.g., AT&T), which would then check the certificates public key against a heavily encrypted private key. A policy administrator, run by the telecom industry with oversight from the FCC, would be in charge of handing out certificates and making sure everything is on the level.

Spam Robocalls Aren’t Slowing Down. Here’s the Tech That Could Stop Them, by Jake Swearingen for NYMag (May 16, 2018)

2 Instead of relying on consumers looking for solutions such as NoMoreRobo and RoboKiller – where a third-party app swoops in and saves the day – more telcos should be offering up these apps natively. Many American carriers have upgrade services that a consumer can opt-in for, but cost extra. To a consumer who is already feeling burned by their carrier for not protecting them, this could seem like a scam in itself.

3 Because none of these solutions will completely stop scammers, spammers and salespeople from getting through 100% of the time, implement an easy way for consumers to report incoming calls to a centralized registry. This would be akin to how my Gmail inbox gets smarter over time and allows me to give feedback and input.

report spam graphic
Why not give me the option on an incoming call screen to “report spam” – which would automatically block the number and report it to a centralized system.

4 Be on the forefront of providing education and outreach to their most vulnerable customers. When the IRS fraud robocalls started ramping up, there were multiple articles in the media and the IRS wrote several posts and publications. However, there was hardly any content published by telcos, themselves. Whether they avoided the topic due to politics or didn’t think it was a topic that they were responsible to cover, their customers certainly held (and still hold) them responsible for solving the issue:

The solution of education and support is cost-effective and simple to execute as every telco has invested in online customer service and content. This could even become a fun, engaging campaign if done right and with the proper tone – a great example of this was Melbourne Metro’s Dumb Ways to Die campaign, which took an “edutainment” approach to a heavy subject. Investing in consumer education and empowerment shouldn’t be seen as a cost or a risk, but instead, a great way to rebuild some of that broken trust.

With great power comes great responsibility

Today, consumers have many choices, including who we choose as our communications service providers. Even with the promise of 5G, there are plenty of alternatives emerging so building consumer trust is more important than ever. Telcos have the power to change their customers’ experience for the better and, now more than ever, they need to be the ones that deliver.

Fixing this crisis for customers can be seen as an irritating cost center or an incredible opportunity to rebuild trust. The future will depend on which perspective you choose.


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