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Robocall

FCC Proposes ‘Record-Breaking’ Fine on Robocall Scammer

The FCC alleges that the Cox/Jones Enterprise conduct violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

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Screenshot of FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel

WASHINGTON, December 21, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday proposed a near $300 million fine on an apparently fraudulent robocall and spoofing operation, the largest fine of its type to date, according to the agency.

Claiming to have information about recipients’ auto warranties, the so-called “Cox/Jones Enterprise” placed more than five billion scam robocalls in early 2021, the FCC alleges. The agency says these calls were made to more than a half a million phones and used over a million unique caller ID numbers. The operation made these calls from various American and foreign entities, including entities located in Panama and Hungary, the commission says.

The FCC alleges that the Cox/Jones Enterprise conduct violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act’s provisions that robocallers must obtain express consent from the recipient before calling a mobile phone and that they must identify themselves at the beginning of the call. The enterprise is also illegally used phony caller IDs to appear near to call recipients, the agency says.

The fine was unanimously proposed at the commission’s December open meeting, at which Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel committed to continued action against phone scammers.

“Earlier this month, we ordered phone companies to block the company responsible for up to 40 percent of scam calls involving student loans. Plus, we now have agreements with 43 State Attorney Generals (sic), the District of Columbia, and Guam to go after illegal robocalls – just like we did here with the Ohio Attorney General,” Rosenworcel said in a prepared statement. “So our message is clear to those who would follow in the footsteps of the auto warranty scammers – we are watching, we are working with our state counterparts, and we will find you, block you, and hold you accountable.”

On Tuesday, the FCC announced a new online portal for entities to report robocall and spoofing violations. The agency in November took action to crack down on straight-to-voicemail robocalls and in October launched an inquiry into combatting calls on non-internet-protocol networks.

The FCC moves to streamline space authorizations

At Wednesday’s meeting, the FCC unanimously approved a notice of proposed rulemaking that would expedite satellite and earth station applications, following Rosenworcel’s November announcement of a new space bureau. Commissioners touted the American space industry’s accelerating rate of satellite deployments and called for updated regulation to facilitate the sector’s further growth.

In their comments, Rosenworcel and Commissioner Brendan Carr praised the Satellite and Telecommunications Streamlining Act, a recently introduced bipartisan bill from Reps. Frank Pallone, Jr., D-N.J., and Ranking Member Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., that would facilitate satellite permitting. Commissioner Nathan Simington endorsed the bill earlier this month.

The FCC sought comment on measures to combat digital discrimination, including via proposals to define the term, update the agency’s consumer complaint mechanism, and provide “model policies” and “best practices” to states and localities. The agency also proposed rules to improve emergency responses by requiring wireless and some text providers to facilitate location-based routing on their internet protocol-based networks. Lastly, the FCC proposed a new compensation structure for certain providers to improve captioned phone calls for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Reporter David B. McGarry hails from sunny Los Angeles. He has written extensively on privacy and tech policy. His work has appeared in such publications as RealClearPolicy and The Center Square.

Robocall

FCC Opens Robocall Reporting Portal

The portal provides private entities the ability to notify the FCC about robocall violations.

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Photo of Loyaan Egal, chief of the FCC's Enforcement Bureau

WASHINGTON, December 20, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission Enforcement Bureau on Thursday announced a new web portal that allows private entities to report robocall and spoofing violations.

“Uses of this form might include a corporation or association experiencing a deluge of robocalls overwhelming their internal phone network, voice service providers that found evidence of illegal robocalls traversing their networks, or private entities that have had their number(s) spoofed,” the FCC’s portal says.

The category “private entities” does not include individuals.

“This new tool will help us support companies and businesses that see their phone lines jammed with robocalls or their valuable and hard-won brand awareness undercut by scammers spoofing their numbers,” said Loyaan Egal, chief of the Enforcement Bureau.  “While we will always rely on consumer complaints about massive robocall campaigns and have existing lines of communications with many public institutions, we now also have a direct line of communications with private entities that sometimes seem under siege by robocalls and now have an avenue to reach out for help.”

The elimination of illegal robocalls has of late been a priority for the FCC, and the agency has taken several actions to squash them in recent months. A recent report by Truecaller found that in the twelve months preceding May 2022, scam callers pried $39.5 billion from 68.4 million Americans. These year-over-year figures rose sharply from $29.8 billion lost and 59.4 million victims in 2021.

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Robocall

Experts Discuss Enforcement Against Imposter Fraud, Other Consumer Protection Issues

Imposter fraud is a particularly predatory offshoot of robocalling, often involving extremely sophisticated scams.

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Image by Ityuan used under license from Adobe Stock

WASHINGTON, December 6, 2022 — Consumer protection efforts from telecommunications companies and federal agencies need to tackle imposter fraud in addition to robocalling, said experts at a Federal Communications Bar Association event Monday.

Imposter fraud is a particularly predatory offshoot of robocalling, involving real individuals instead of or in addition to automated messages. These scams can be very sophisticated and tailored toward individual consumers, panelists said.

By pretending to be associated with the IRS or government aid programs, imposter fraud primarily targets vulnerable communities, including non-native English speakers, low-income individuals and the elderly.

State and federal enforcement agencies should take more aggressive action to stop these bad actors, panelists said.

Another important step toward consumer protection is updating education efforts to reflect the increasing sophistication and complexity of scams. Many consumers rely on security advice that is now outdated, said Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge.

“The idea of, ‘Don’t click the link, you should call someone”—well, now they fake numbers,” he said. “So if you call rather than click the link, you’re still talking to a to a criminal.”

While many consumers know to not give out their bank information or social security number, newer scams frequently ask for information that may seem less important, such as utility account numbers. Scammers can then use that information to perpetrate various forms of identity theft.

With scamming tactics changing every few months, telecommunications companies should provide continued consumer education beyond their initial onboarding, said Stuart Drobny, president of Stumar Investigations.

Panelists discussed a variety of actions being taken to combat robocalls, generally describing them as positive steps but not full solutions.

Although STIR/SHAKEN implementation – the Federal Communications Commission’s framework to combat illegal robocalls – has made progress, bad actors have found a workaround by purchasing thousands of legitimate phone numbers, said Diana Eisner, vice president of policy and advocacy at USTelecom.

The FCC’s actions against voice over internet protocol providers are “very promising and so far have been proven to be very effective,” said Len Briley, senior legal counsel for DIRECTV.

Other consumer protection issues involve the ACP and provider disclosures

Panelists also discussed the benefits and weaknesses of the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which subsidizes internet services for low-income households.

The ACP has been life-changing for many of the program’s participants, Feld said, citing a digital equity report released by Cox on Friday. About half of the survey participants reported that they had been unable to afford home internet prior to the ACP. Nearly all participants reported significant benefits from home internet, particularly for participating in remote learning, accessing educational resources and completing schoolwork from home.

Despite the program’s value, it has also been the subject of multiple fraud controversies. Some of these problems have emerged when consumers are not fully informed about the requirements, Feld said.

“You have lifeline recipients who get a contact from their phone lifeline provider and they say, ‘Hey, we’d like to upgrade you to a new contract,’ and they don’t tell them that it’s an ACP program… and then when [consumers] try to apply their ACP benefit, which is a one per household for a wireline connection, they discover that they can’t because they have used their ACP benefit for wireless.”

In October, Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr., D-N.J., raised concerns about several internet service providers engaging in potential “abusive, misleading, fraudulent, or otherwise predatory behaviors” related to the ACP.

Another FCC consumer protection initiative is the new broadband “nutrition label” requirement, mandating that internet providers display standardized performance metrics, monthly rates and other relevant information at points of sale.

Eisner praised the initiative, saying that the FCC had reached a good balance of ensuring that the labels would present important information without becoming unwieldy or overly complicated.

Although consumer groups called for a requirement that these labels be included on monthly internet bills, this requirement did not make it into the final order. In failing to include it, the FCC “missed something that would be a very significant benefit to consumers,” Feld said.

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Expert Opinion

Dmitry Sumin: What to Do About Flash Calls, the New SMS Replacement

Why are flash calls on the rise and how do operators handle them to maximize revenue?

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Dmitry Sumin, AB Handshake Corporation Head of Products

Chances are you’ve received several flash calls this week when registering for a new app or verifying a transaction. Flash calls are almost instantly dropped calls that deliver one-time passcodes to users, verifying their phone numbers and actions. Many prominent apps and companies, such as Viber, Telegram, WhatsApp, and TikTok, use flash calls as a cheaper, faster, and more user-friendly alternative to application-to-person SMS.

With the flash call volume expected to increase 25-fold from 2022 to 2026, from five to 130 billion, it’s no wonder they’re a hot topic in the telecom industry.

But what’s the problem, you may ask?

The problem is that there is currently no way for operators to bill zero-duration calls. This means operators don’t make any termination revenue from flash calls, which overload networks. What’s more, operators lose SMS termination revenues as businesses switch to flash calls. SMS business messaging accounts for up to five percent of total operator-billed revenue in 2021, so you can see the scale of potential revenue losses for operators. 

In this article, I’ll discuss why flash calls are on the rise, why it’s difficult to detect and monetize them, and what operators can do about this.

Why are flash calls overtaking SMS passcodes?

Previously, application-to-person SMS was a popular way to deliver one-time passwords. But enterprises and communication service providers are increasingly switching to flash calls because they have several disruptive advantages over SMS.

First and foremost, flash calls are considerably cheaper than SMS, sometimes costing up to eight times less. Cost of delivery is, of course, a prime concern for apps and enterprises.

Second, flash calls ensure smooth user interaction, which boosts user satisfaction and retention. On Androids, mobile apps automatically extract flash call passcodes. This makes the two-factor authentication process fast and frictionless. In comparison, SMS passcodes require users to read the SMS and sometimes insert the code manually.

Third, on average flash calls reach users within 15 seconds, while SMS sometimes take 20 seconds or longer. The delivery speed of flash calls also improves the user experience.

The problem: Flash calls erode operators’ SMS revenues

While offering notable advantages for apps, flash call service providers, and end users, flash calls create numerous challenges for operators and transit carriers.

As we discussed before, flash calls erode operators’ SMS revenues because much of the new flash call traffic will be shifted away from current SMS business messaging. The issue is only going to become more pressing as the volume of flash calls grows.

So from the operator’s standpoint, flash calls reduce revenue, disrupt relations with interconnect partners, and overload networks. However, there is still no industry consensus on how to handle flash calls: block them like spam and fraudulent traffic or find a monetization model for this verification channel, like for application-to-person SMS.

Accurate detection of flash calls is a challenge

The first crucial step that gives operators the upper hand is accurately detecting flash calls.

This is difficult because operators have no way of discerning legitimate verification flash calls from fraud schemes that rely on drop calls, such as wangiri. The wangiri fraud scheme uses instantly dropped calls to trick users into calling back premium rate numbers. In addition, flash calls need to be distinguished from genuine missed calls placed by customers.

The problem is that even advanced AI-powered fraud management systems struggle to accurately differentiate between various zero-duration calls. The task requires AI engines to be trained on large volumes of relevant traffic coupled with analysis of hundreds of specific call parameters.

Dedicated anti-fraud solutions are the answer

There are only a few solutions on the market that are capable of accurately distinguishing flash calls from other zero-duration calls. Dedicated fraud management vendors have made progress on this difficult task.

The highest accuracy of flash call detection now available on the market is 99.92 percent. Such tools allow operators to precisely determine the ranges from which flash calls are sent. As a result, operators can make an informed decision on how to treat flash calls to maximize revenue and can proactively negotiate with flash call providers.

Flash call detection creates new opportunities

Our team estimates that flash calls make up to four percent of Tier one operators’ international voice traffic. Without accurate detection and a billing strategy, this portion of traffic overloads operators’ networks and offers no revenue. However, with proper detection flash calls offer a new business opportunity.

Now is a crucial time for operators to start implementing flash call detection into their system and capitalize on the trend.

There are a few anti-fraud solutions on the market that give operators all the necessary information to negotiate a billing agreement with a flash call provider. Once an agreement has been reached, all flash calls coming from this provider will be monetized, much like SMS.

All flash calls not covered by agreements can be blocked automatically. This will help to restore SMS revenues. Once a flash call has been blocked, subscribers will most likely receive an SMS passcode sent as a fallback.

Moreover, modern solutions don’t affect any legitimate traffic because they only block selected ranges. This also helps to prevent revenue loss.

Essentially, the choice of how to handle flash calls comes down to each operator. However, without a powerful anti-fraud solution capable of accurately detecting flash calls in real time, it’s nearly impossible to monetize flash calls effectively and develop a billing strategy.

Dmitry Sumin is the Head of Products at the AB Handshake Corporation. He has more than 15 years of experience in international roaming, interconnect and fraud management. Since graduating from Moscow State University, he has worked for both vendors and network operators in the MVNO and telecommunications market. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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