August 11, 2020

TRACED Act 101: The 2020 Guide to the Government's Efforts to Stop Robocalls

TRACED Act 101: The 2020 Guide to the Government's Efforts to Stop Robocalls

Does "Rachel" from "Cardholder Services" call you more than your mom? What about "James" from the "IRS?" If yes, you're not the only one.

In 2019, we received 58.5 billion robocalls—up 22% from the year before. There's a robocall pandemic, and there will never be a vaccine. But now, finally, it looks the feds are doing something.

Back in December, President Trump signed the TRACED Act into law, and it promised to be a game-changer. The media dubbed it the "robocall law," and we thought it was a great idea.

Six months in, what's the latest? Will the new changes be a success? Or sink without TRACE?

In this guide, learn:

  • What is the TRACED Act?
  • How the Traced Act stops robocalls
  • When does the TRACED Act become effective? When will we see results?
  • Why the TRACED Act won't stop spam calls
  • Why we support the TRACED Act (but know there's a long way to go!)
  • What we think needs to happen next
  • How we supplement the TRACED Act

What is the TRACED Act?

It's a law with an incredibly long title. The Pallone-Thune Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act—we'll call it as the TRACED Act from now on—became law in December 2019. It's one of the most important developments in the battle against robocalls, which now make up around half of all phone calls in the United States.

We reported on the TRACED Act the day it became law. The TRACED Act is an amendment to a much older law called the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA). Back in 1991, robocalls weren't as prevalent as they are now, and smartphones hadn't even been invented!

So, what is it? The TRACED Act increases the powers of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to fight robocalls, with higher penalties for robocall violations. Phone companies, in particular, have a greater responsibility to protect customers from illegal calls. This sounds like good news to us.

The TRACED Act stipulates various remedies for robocall violations, but these are the most important ones:

  • Increased penalties of up to $10,000 for robocall violations (with or without criminal intent)
  • Voice service providers must develop call authentication technologies to identify robocallers
  • Longer statute of limitations (up to 4 years) for the FCC to pursue robocall offenses  
  • A new "working group" set up by the FCC and Department of Justice to enforce robocall violations and introduce new laws, constraints, and policies for robocall offenses

How the TRACED Act Stops Robocalls


One of the stipulations of the TRACED Act is that voice service providers must develop call authentication technologies to identify robocallers. Some of these technologies, like the STIR/SHAKEN authentication system, were already in place before the TRACED Act, so the new law works alongside these frameworks to facilitate robocall reduction.

Essentially, STIR/SHAKEN is the technology that (in theory) prevents robocalls, while the TRACED Act is the piece of legislation that enforces robocall violations. Let's pause here and explain STIR/SHAKEN. It's a system that utilizes digital "fingerprints" to authenticate whether an unknown caller is legit. This framework determines whether someone's phone number is the same as the one that shows on your caller ID. It sounds great in practice, and it's a good start. But there are problems with this technology, which we'll discuss later.

STIR/SHAKEN aims to prevent the avalanche of spoofed calls people receive from fraudsters. These criminals make it appear as though they are calling from a local number but, in reality, they are calling from a location far away. Even though we send rockets into space, and companies track our every move on smartphones, phone calls are still very easy to spoof. Scammers know this all too well.

If you want to learn more about spoofed calls, we recommend this guide!

You might have noticed STIR/SHAKEN on your cell phone and not even thought about it. This is because carriers like Verizon and T-Mobile already use the framework. If you've received calls from numbers with a label like "spam likely" or "scam likely," this is STIR/SHAKEN in action.

We know what you're thinking. All STIR/SHAKEN does is notify you that a call is likely to be spam. It doesn't stop the call from reaching your phone in the first place. Still, this is all carriers can do at the moment. Until we develop new technologies, there are few options to truly authenticate calls.

Of course, STIR/SHAKEN is better than nothing. And we like how the TRACED Act makes it mandatory for carriers to use technology like this (or face fines for non-compliance.) As we said, it's a start. But there's a long way to go. We've also noticed various problems with STIR/SHAKEN. Many small carriers don't have the infrastructure to facilitate the technology, and their customers lack these fundamental protections.

It's worth noting that the TRACED Act doesn't specify a date for when carriers should implement call authentication technologies, so it could be years before everyone has access to frameworks like STIR/SHAKEN. (It's a different story in Canada, where carriers must implement STIR/SHAKEN no later than Sept. 30, 2020.)

Unfortunately, many carriers (especially those that serve customers in rural areas) still use analog technology, and upgrading these communications could cost tens of millions of dollars. With the current coronavirus crisis and subsequent economic fallout, this might not happen for quite some time. As you can see, many carriers are in a strange limbo where they want to stop robocalls but don't have the technology or finances to do so.

Recommended reading: COVID-19 Phone Scam Report: 35% Fewer Robocalls, But The Risk Is Higher Than Ever

When Does the TRACED Act become effective? When will we see results?

Different components of the TRACED Act become effective on different dates, and it's unclear whether the current pandemic has pushed back some of these deadlines. Still, the proposed timeline for 2020 looks something like this:

  • March 29, 2020: The FCC must create a third-party group of voice service providers that establish "best practices" for robocall reduction (as per the TRACED Act.) The group must then publish these best practices within 180 days.
  • By June 27, 2020: The FCC must determine how to modify its policies to reduce illegal robocalls. This includes imposing requirements for voice service providers to identify callers.
  • By July 27, 2020: The FCC must issue a Public Notice to voice service providers asking how they plan to authenticate calls/trace the origin of callers.
  • By Sept. 25, 2020: The FCC must issue specific regulations for enforcing the TRACED Act.
  • By Dec. 30, 2020: The FCC must report to Congress about its enforcement action against illegal robocallers in the preceding calendar year (and then do the same thing every year).

Yes, it's a long process. We won't know the effectiveness of the TRACED Act until the end of this year and might not see any real changes until next year.

Recommended reading: Why is Call Screening the Future of the Phone Call?

Why the TRACED Act Won't Stop Spam Calls

Although the TRACED Act is a good idea on paper, and we welcome any law that prevents robocalls, it isn't an all-encompassing solution. Not really. We'll explain why...

Many Robocalls Come From Outside the US

The TRACED Act only mandates robocalls in the U.S. However, billions of spam calls are made from outside the country. How can the FCC issue fines for robocall violations in another jurisdiction? Answer: They can't.

As you can see, robocalls are a global phenomenon, and the FCC doesn't have the resources (or the legal authority) to enforce robocall violations abroad. As a result, Americans have to rely on call authentication technologies rather than enforcement.

Plus, U.S.-Based Robocalls Won't Stop

Illegal robocallers are criminals, plain and simple. Nothing will stop them from contacting people when spam calls are so lucrative. U.S.-based robocallers continue to call people and trick them into handing over their personal and financial information. Perhaps they haven't heard about the TRACED Act. Or maybe they just don't care. The TRACED Act extends the statute of limitations for the FCC to pursue robocall offenses (it's now 4 years, up from 1 year), but this is unlikely to eliminate the robocall problem because it's so widespread. If the FCC can't pursue robocallers within 1 year, there's little chance they can within the 4-year limit.

STIR/SHAKEN Has Limitations

Although not a criticism of the TRACED Act itself, we think there are many problems with STIR/SHAKEN that the government has yet to address. (The TRACED Act certainly doesn't mention these issues.) The main problem is that STIR/SHAKEN doesn't prevent spam calls from reaching people in the first place. It merely gives the recipient a choice to answer or reject a call. In other words, if a robocaller contacts you 10 times a day, STIR/SHAKEN won't stop them from calling you 10 times a day!

Source: TransNexus

If a robocaller persists, you still have to manually block their number, too. Think of STIR/SHAKEN as more of a warning system than a preventive measure. You'll still receive the same number of robocalls as you did before. You just get a little bit more information about the person on the other end of the phone.

As we said, this isn't a criticism of the TRACED Act. We appreciate the act will assemble a group of FCC and Department of Justice officials to introduce new "laws, constraints, and policies" for robocall offenses. But how long will this take?

Recommended reading: The Epidemic of Caller ID Spoofing in the United States—and What You Can Do About It Right Now

Why We Support the TRACED Act (But Know There's a Long Way to Go!)

For years, we've stood up for everyday Americans plagued by robocalls. It's why we created our app RoboKiller in the first place. And while there's a long way to go, we think the TRACED Act is a definite step in the right direction.

We've campaigned for legislative changes to reduce robocalls, and we've hosted press conferences about this topic. Finally, it looks like the government is taking action!

But we're not 100% satisfied. We think the government can do much more. However, at the same time, we understand there are technical and financial limitations.

Recommended reading: Justice Department’s Robocall Action is Great for Consumers

What We Think Needs to Happen Next

We love the idea that phone carriers will be held responsible for nuisance callers. For years, these companies didn't do anything about the problem. Only now, with the threat of large penalties, will we see action. This is what we think should happen next:

  • We'd love to see the government invest the funds collected from any fines into new call authentication technologies that go much further than STIR/SHAKEN.
  • We'd love the FCC and Justice Department to think up new initiatives to stop robocallers from abroad, though this seems near-impossible.

This is what we don't want to see:

  • As carriers implement STIR/SHAKEN and other call authentication technologies, they mustn't flag genuine companies (including those who make legitimate marketing calls with the approval of the recipient) as "scam likely." This could put some companies who rely on legitimate telemarketing out of business.

We'd also love the government to continue to work with call blocking apps like RoboKiller to develop new strategies and technologies for robocall reduction.

Recommended reading: Debunking STIR/SHAKEN Call Authentication Myths in 2020

How We Supplement the TRACED Act

While it's great news, the truth is the TRACED Act (and STIR/SHAKEN, for that matter) can only do so much. The only real way to prevent robocalls is to stop them from reaching people in the first instance.

This is where RoboKiller comes in.

Our app could reduce spam calls by 90% in just 30 days, and we're just getting started. Since we launched RoboKiller, we've blocked over 500 million robocallers and telemarketers, even those who spoofed or changed their numbers. We're adding new features all the time. Now you can:

  • Block unwanted calls with 99% effectiveness
  • Pick an Answer Bot who answers spam calls for you
  • Customize block/allow lists
  • Still receive important calls
  • Find out a caller's name/reason for calling before you answer the phone
  • Waste scammers' time with hilarious pre-recorded messages
  • Stop spam texts

Get started with a 7-day free trial here.

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