STIR/SHAKEN 101: The 2020 Guide to the FTC’s New Call Authentication Framework
STIR/SHAKEN might sound like something from an old James Bond movie (“Shaken, not stirred…”), but it’s one of the most important technological developments in robocall history. In its simplest terms, STIR/SHAKEN is a series of technological protocols that prevent caller ID spoofing — a technique used by robocallers to conceal their identities.
Although the government announced the STIR/SHAKEN framework a few years ago, we’re only just beginning to see the effects. In 2019, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made the first cross-border phone call using STIR/SHAKEN technology, and most phone carriers are beginning to incorporate the protocols into their services.
STIR/SHAKEN might not be the most exciting topic in the world, but it’s important. In this guide, you’ll learn:
- All about the STIR/SHAKEN framework — and what it means.
- Why STIR/SHAKEN doesn’t stop robocalls.
- What you can do instead to stop robocalls!
What is STIR/SHAKEN?
The United States has a huge problem — robocalls. These calls are more than just annoying communications; they are seriously dangerous. Here are some facts that you need to know:
- The FCC receives more complaints about robocalls than any other topic.
- Americans received more than 26 billion robocalls in 2018.
- Americans received more than 58 billion robocalls in 2019.
- Robocalls are almost always illegal.
- Robocallers claim to be from the IRS, immigration services, and other government agencies.
- Robocallers pretend to be the police.
- Robocallers spoof their numbers to make you think they are calling from a local number.
- Robocallers try to steal your personal and financial information.
Robocalls have been around since the ’90s, but they have become a massive issue in recent years. Finally, the government announced plans to fight the problem. In 2016, the FCC created a “robocall task force,” which looked at new technologies that identify spam callers — or, at the very least, provide people with more information about unknown callers. Eventually, the FCC announced a new protocol called STIR/SHAKEN.
How does it work?
“STIR/SHAKEN uses digital certificates, based on common public-key cryptography techniques, to ensure the calling number of a telephone call is secure,” says TransNexus.
Although there’s a lot of complicated science behind it, STIR/SHAKEN essentially works like this:
- Every time someone calls your phone, STIR/SHAKEN tries to identify the origin of the caller.
- If the caller might be a scammer, you should receive a message saying “scam likely” or “spam likely” on your caller ID.
With this additional information, you can do one of the following things:
- Answer the call as normal.
- Reject the call.
- Block the number.
- Send the call to voicemail (depending on your carrier.)
STIR/SHAKEN won’t work without the help of phone carriers like Verizon and AT&T. These companies need to implement the STIR/SHAKEN protocol for it to operate. The problem is, the technology costs money to execute, and some carriers need to invest in innovations for STIR/SHAKEN to even work (such as carriers that serve customers in rural areas). This is why the government introduced new legislation to make carriers adopt the STIR/SHAKEN protocol.
In 2019, President Trump signed the TRACED Act, one of the most important pieces of robocall legislation in history. The legislation mandates that carriers must implement call authentication technologies (like STIR/SHAKEN) or face penalties for non-compliance. At the moment, there is no set date for when carriers must implement these technologies. However, Canadian phone carriers have until September 2020 (as per rules laid down by the Canadian government).
For years, we’ve criticized phone carriers for not doing enough about robocalls, and now the government has forced them to take action! However, it’s far too early to tell whether STIR/SHAKEN will be a success or not. On our blog, we have talked about the limitations of STIR/SHAKEN (and why other methods are more effective for fighting robocalls.)
Recommended reading: Debunking STIR/SHAKEN Call Authentication
How Can STIR/SHAKEN Stop Robocalls?
Call authentication technologies like STIR/SHAKEN don’t stop robocalls because, unfortunately, nobody can stop them. This is why:
- Many robocallers originate from outside the U.S., which makes it difficult for them to be held accountable for their actions. New provisions (also under the TRACED Act) will fine illegal robocallers, but the government doesn’t have the jurisdiction to fine scammers outside the country.
- Robocallers are sneaky. They use the latest technologies like auto-dialing software and frequently change their numbers. This makes it difficult to trace them.
- Robocallers don’t care about protocols like STIR/SHAKEN. They can spoof numbers that trick STIR/SHAKEN or find alternative ways to reach people.
STIR/SHAKEN authenticates calls by using digital certificates, which provide recipients with additional information about the source of the calls. Carriers that show messages like “scam likely” and “spam likely” provide customers with a warning sign that the person calling might be a scammer. It’s then up to the customer to decide what to do with this information. Of course, this is a good thing, and we’re glad that the government is finally doing something about the robocall problem. However, there’s so much more they can do.
Why STIR/SHAKEN Can’t Stop Robocalls
There are other reasons why STIR/SHAKEN won’t be 100% effective:
- The technology can flag genuine numbers as “spam likely,” even if these numbers come from reputable companies. STIR/SHAKEN is a new technology, and call authentication is much more difficult than you think.
- Many legit companies make outbound calls to people (with their permission), and these companies won’t be able to carry out their duties if phone carriers flag their calls as spam.
- As you can guess by now, STIR/SHAKEN doesn’t stop robocallers from reaching people in the first instance. This means you will still receive calls from scammers, just like before. The only difference is that you will have additional information about the source of the communication so you can accept, reject, or block the caller.
While the STIR/SHAKEN framework is a step in the right direction, it’s not an all-encompassing solution.
Other Robocall Solutions
There are other solutions for limiting robocalls, but these all have varying degrees of success:
Do Not Call Registry
The National Do Not Call Registry lets you add your phone number to a database and prevent telemarketers from contacting you. We think this is a great idea, but it doesn’t actually stop robocallers, and here’s why…
The Do Not Call Registry only concerns genuine companies that make outbound sales calls (and other types of calls) and not the illegal robocallers trying to steal your money. While legitimate sales calls from genuine companies might be annoying, they are not dangerous. Many people think Do Not Call will block robocallers, but this isn’t true. Scammers don’t care about a database like this. Do Not Call certainly won’t stop scammers from contacting you.
Changing Your Phone Number
You might think that changing your phone number will stop robocallers, but this won’t work either. This is because robocallers can just find your new number and plague you with calls anyway. The robocalls might stop for a while, but they will probably come back.
Scammers often scrape the internet for phone numbers or buy illegal call lists from other fraudulent companies. This means they have a constant flow of new phone numbers. Plus, the person who used your number before you (carriers recycle phone numbers) might have received robocalls. These calls won’t stop just because you now use the number.
Removing Your Number From the Internet
This is a good way to reduce robocalls, but it’s still not 100% effective. As we said, scammers often scrape the internet for phone numbers and add these to a database. If you have listed your number somewhere on the internet, it might be a good idea to remove it from social media pages, personal websites, and business listings.
Unfortunately, many businesses list their phone numbers online to attract customers, so removing phone numbers might not be possible for many people.
Talk to Your Carrier
You might want to report robocalls to your phone company. However, there isn’t a lot more your carrier can do than implement the STIR/SHAKEN framework. It’s always a good idea to notify your carrier if you are having a serious robocall problem so they can investigate, but don’t expect a major change.
Talk to the Police
If you have lost money to a scammer over the phone, you should report the problem to your local police department. However, this won’t stop robocallers from contacting you in the future. Also, there’s not much the police will do if you tell them you are receiving nuisance calls from scammers. The police might investigate if there is a serious problem but, in most cases, they just don’t have the time or resources.
Using a combination of the above (in addition to STIR/SHAKEN) is a good way to reduce robocalls, but none of these options are fool-proof. Even if you use all of the above methods, you will probably still receive robocalls.
What Methods Stop (or Reduce) Robocalls?
OK, some other methods work. These include:
Audio Fingerprints detect voice patterns and common phrases used by robocallers, with great accuracy. When a company that uses Audio Fingerprints identifies a robocaller, it adds the number to a spam list so the caller doesn’t annoy anyone else. This is one of the most effective ways to reduce the robocall problem.
Call Blocking Apps
Call blocking apps prevent calls from reaching you in the first place. They use predictive algorithms, spam lists, and other technologies to identify spammers and stop them from calling you. There are various call blocking apps on the market, and phone carriers are starting to create apps of their own.
Some call blocking apps are free; others require a subscription. Just like with anything, you usually get what you pay for. Some apps can’t identify robocallers with much accuracy, while others don’t do much at all. The best call blocking apps come with loads of custom features so you can block calls without stopping genuine people from reaching you.
Getting Sweet Revenge
OK, this one might not solve the problem of robocalls completely, but it certainly feels good. If you’re like everyone else, you know how frustrating and annoying robocalls can be. Perhaps you remember a time when you were expecting a call from a new date or a potential employer, but then a robocaller called you instead. Maybe your phone won’t stop buzzing because robocallers are trying to steal your money.
Imagine you could get revenge on robocallers.
This is where Answer Bots come in. These bots mimic humans and have a conversation with robocallers for you. They are just annoying as robocallers and waste their time. This is a fun way to get your own back! Take a listen to one of many hilarious Answer Bot interactions:
Why RoboKiller is the Only Solution for Spam Calls
RoboKiller comes with loads of features for spam protection and call blocking. These features include:
- Real-time spam protection.
- SMS protection so you can reduce spam text messages.
- Personalized block/allow lists.
- Audio Fingerprints.
- Hilarious Answer Bots.
- Supports all carriers in the United States/Canada.
- Excellent customer service.
The STIR/SHAKEN framework is a welcome move in the battle against robocalls. However, this protocol has severe limitations. Although it provides people with useful information, it doesn’t stop the spammers at all. (We don’t think many people realize this.) As more carriers roll out STIR/SHAKEN in the months and years to come, it’s unclear whether this technology will be a success.