Business VoIP providers – certification could end spoof calls

The introduction of VoIP has many advantages for business. It offers lower call costs and improved scalability, plus the ability for staff to use the same company phone system wherever they are located.

However, for business and personal phone users alike, some of the strengths of VoIP have, in some situations, exacerbated the curse of spoofed calls. Unscrupulous telemarketers have been able to evade call blocking by changing their numbers and cutting labour costs by calling from overseas. More serious fraudsters have spoofed the numbers of banks, utility companies and other businesses in an effort to extort funds or steal identities.

Numbers can be spoofed to have a specified local area code – a technique known as ‘neighbour spoofing’ – so that the call recipient is less likely to be suspicious and therefore more inclined to pick up the call. Combine all of this with robot calling systems that can be set up cheaply with basic hardware and wrongdoers are able to dial hundreds of numbers in a short space of time. It’s easy to see why people are getting fed up with the tide of unwanted calls.

In the US alone, calls of this nature triggered over seven million complaints to the telecommunications regulator in 2017. It is estimated that the average US consumer receives more than 20 unwanted or spam phone calls each month and on many days will get more spam calls than they do genuine ones.

All of this is bad news for legitimate businesses because it’s increasingly the case that if people don’t recognise the number that is calling, they simply don’t pick up the phone. If you are trying to get in touch with your customers, this can lead to an irritating round of ‘voicemail tennis’ and a good deal of wasted time for both business and customer.

Technology to the rescue

There have been various attempts to curb the menace of spoofed and spam calls. Until now these have mostly involved the blacklisting of numbers. The problem with this is that the spoofers are able to react quickly by setting up new numbers as soon as an old one is blocked.

Help is at hand, however, in the form of a new technology developed by a consortium of technical experts from the telecoms industry. It’s currently being tested in the United States and may be precisely what’s needed to bring an end to the curse of spoofed phone numbers. Known as the STIR/SHAKEN system, it works by adding a certificate to each number in order to provide an additional layer of verification.

STIR stands for Secure Telephone Identity Revisited, and SHAKEN for Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using toKENs – you can see why they needed a catchy acronym. The system is currently being tested by a number of companies in the US.

So, how does it work? When someone makes a call, a certificate is attached to it which verifies that it comes from a particular number. When the call gets to the recipient’s service provider, the certificate is checked against an encrypted private key to ensure that it’s genuine. The call can then be marked as verified or flagged as suspicious. This is similar to the secure socket layer (SSL) certificate system used to verify that websites are genuine and secure and which results in a green padlock symbol showing in your browser software.

Issuing of certificates is overseen by an industry regulator – the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in United States – so that only genuine companies will be able to get hold of them.

What this means for business VoIP providers

In order for the STIR/SHAKEN system to be effective, carriers, whether on traditional PSTN networks or on VoIP, need to be onboard with the technology. This will allow caller display systems to show when a call has not been verified and should be treated with a degree of suspicion. This could, perhaps, be achieved by means of a suitable security symbol to show that the number of your bank – for example – is genuinely what it appears to be.

The system may confer additional costs on providers as they will need to invest in the technology needed to make the verification system work effectively. They may, however, be able to pass these costs on to their customers as individuals and businesses have already proved more than willing to invest in call blocking technologies to reduce the annoyance of unwanted calls.

Will it make automated calling go away? It seems unlikely that this will happen. However, if verification systems such as STIR/SHAKEN take off, it is probable that robot calling will become a less lucrative activity for scammers and fraudsters and we may see a reduction in this type of call.