US Telecom Providers Take Aim at Robocalls
The Federal Communications Commission is empowering U.S. telecom providers to block calls from numbers that are not assigned to phones or no longer in use—one of the biggest banes of their customers’ existence, with a negative halo effect on the provider as the platform allowing scam artists to reach customers.
Known as robocalls or spoofing, scammers often pose as a government agency like the IRS when in actual fact it’s an unsolicited pre-taped telemarketing call to dupe anyone who answers into buying something they don’t want or need.
With scam telemarketers easily able to thwart the Do Not Call registry, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai noted that “Robocalls often take advantage of the most vulnerable members of our population. They scam elderly Americans out of their hard-earned dollars.”
Robocalls were the top consumer complaint by Americans to the FCC last year, while the U.S. Treasury Department estimates that $54 million has been lost in the last four years on such scams.
The U.S. telecom industry is also waging war on robocalls. AT&T CEO Randall L. Stephenson chairs the Robocall Strike Force that the FCC set up last year. Other key members are Apple, Google, Microsoft and Verizon.
In December AT&T announced free robocall blocking for postpaid smartphone customers. The Call Protect service blocks some fraud calls at the network level before they reach customers’ phones. In other cases, when it’s less clear whether the call is fraudulent, Call Protect doesn’t block the call but shows “suspected spam warnings on the incoming call screen which let customers choose whether or not to answer calls that originate from a suspected spam source,” AT&T’s announcement said.
Verizon, for its part, stated that “We’re continuing to work with enforcement agencies and others to trace back suspicious robocalls, supporting legislative efforts to address the ‘spoofing’ problem.”
T-Mobile is now enabling Scam ID and Scam Block on a rolling basis. Neville Ray, chief technology officer at T-Mobile, said, “Every year, three out of four people in the U.S. get at least one scam call — and fraudsters cheat consumers out of more than half a billion dollars per year.”
“It’s insane. We had to do something to protect our customers, so the T-Mobile team designed a brilliant set of patent-pending technologies — then built them directly into our network, so there’s nothing customers have to do. No hoops to jump through, no app to download.”
Scam ID and Scam Block are free but T-Mobile is charging $4 per month for Name ID.
The FCC’s Pai said 2.4 billion automated calls go out monthly – many fraudulent. Take the latest robocall scam. The phone rings, you answer “hello,” and after a brief silence a woman’s voice says, “Oh, hi there!” (Embarrassed laugh.) “Sorry, I was having a little trouble with my headset!”
The “can you hear me” scam leads to tricking people into saying yes and being signed up for things they didn’t mean to order. It epitomizes the growing power of automated “conversational agents” or chatbots used by telemarketers.
Dan Weld, professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington told the Los Angeles Times that the technique shows “careful human engineering with an understanding of the human dynamics of conversations and what will sound natural.”
FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn cited a December study by the call-blocking company CPR Call Blocker that found more than one in ten U.S. adults has been a victim of a phone scam.
Marilyn Walker, a professor of computer science at UC Santa Cruz warned the chatbots are getting even chattier, and harder to identify as a robocall: “On every front in development of conversational agents, there’s a huge emphasis on making them more sociable. This stuff is all coming together now in a way that’s getting very close to artificial intelligence,” she said.
“The vision right now for conversational agents is moving seamlessly among various tasks,” Walker said, while adding the occasional “um” or “uh-huh” to appear more human—even laughing at appropriate moments while modulating vocal pitch to match context.
Walker is heading a team of graduate students competing for the first Alexa Prize, an award from Amazon for any university that creates a “socialbot” capable of genuine chitchat.
Each of 12 sponsored teams have already received $100,000 from Amazon to fund their work and the best-performing bot will win $500,000 with an extra $1 million to the socialbot that “converses coherently and engagingly with humans on popular topics and news events for 20 minutes.”
Amazon spokesman Art Pettigrue told the Los Angeles Times, “we’re really at a tipping point for so many elements of the technology. We’re in a golden age of machine learning and AI. We’re still a long way from being able to do things the way humans do things, but we’re solving unbelievably complex problems every day.”
So we’re not quite at the point of “Alexa – block robocalls!” But if the Alexa Prize winners have their way, that day may come soon.