Breakingviews - Robocall infestation demands robot solution

A woman poses with the SoftBank Mobile Corp's robot-shaped mobile phone "Phone Braver 815T PB" at the International Tokyo Toy Show in Tokyo June 19, 2008. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - A robocall infestation may demand a robot solution. Scam calls could make up nearly half U.S. traffic next year, data from call control outfit First Orion suggests, up from under 4 percent last year. Society bears the costs in wasted time and swindles.

The Federal Trade Commission says the number of illegal sales calls, particularly using automated systems, has increased dramatically since 2009. The Federal Communications Commission, for its part, states countering robocalls is Chairman Ajit Pai’s top consumer-protection priority. Yet regulators have been able to do little to restrain the flood. Rule changes such as allowing cellular network operators to proactively block calls from obviously fake numbers and fining robocallers $200 million since the start of 2017 aren’t holding back the tide.

Thanks to software allowing the easy manipulation of caller identification data, cellphone users in the United States now receive regular scam calls from numbers that look local. Recorded pitches in Mandarin have suddenly become commonplace. Recipients suffer interruptions, lost time and sometimes lost money.

The history of email suggests good technology is consumers’ best hope to defeat the bad. Filters that examine where messages originate from, notice unusual patterns, and spot key phrases have improved to be mostly effective at diverting unwanted typed messages. Apps that detect and block robocalls are catching on. But it’s harder to do than with email. Erring on the side of caution by blocking or delaying authentic calls may be unacceptable for many users, for example. And systems that go beyond screening caller IDs and listen to calls may seem more intrusive than those that spot emails entitled “herbal Viagra.”

As with email, though, engineering will eventually provide more consistent relief than laws or fines. A more effective system for authenticating callers, which the government and communications firms hope will reach consumers over the next few years, would be one good step towards making it safe to answer a phone again.


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