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Will ignoring robocalls stop them? Here’s what we learned from 1.5 million calls on 66,000 phone lines

New research aims to provide phone companies with tools to help control robocalls. Peter Dazeley / The Image Database via Getty Images The Research Brief is a brief presentation of interesting academic work. The Big Idea More than 80% of robocalls come from fake numbers – and answering those calls doesn’t affect how many more you get. These are two key findings from an eleven month unwanted phone call study we conducted from February 2019 to January 2020. To better understand how these unwanted callers work, we monitored every call on over 66,000 phone lines at our phone security lab, the Robocall Observatory at North Carolina State University. During the study we received 1.48 million unsolicited calls. We answered some of these calls and let others ring. Contrary to popular belief, we’ve found that answering calls makes no difference in the number of robocalls received from a phone number. The weekly volume of robocalls remained constant throughout the study. As part of our study, we also developed the first method to identify robocalling campaigns that are responsible for a large number of these annoying, illegal and fraudulent robocalls. The main types of robocalling campaigns involved student loans, health insurance, Google business listings, general financial fraud, and a long-standing social security fraud. Using these techniques, we have learned that over 80% of calls from an average robocalling campaign use fake or ephemeral phone numbers to make unwanted calls. The perpetrators use these telephone numbers to deceive their victims and make it difficult to identify and track illegal robocallers. We have also seen some fraudulent robocalling operations impersonate government agencies for many months without being detected. They used messages in English and Mandarin and threatened the victims with dire consequences. These messages are aimed at vulnerable populations, including immigrants and the elderly. Why It Matters Providers can identify the true source of a call using a time-consuming manual process called traceback. There are too many robocalls for traceback these days to be a practical solution for any call. Our robocalling campaign identification technique is not just a powerful research tool. It can also be used by service providers to identify large scale robocalling operations. With our methods, providers only need to examine a small number of calls for each robocalling campaign. By specifically searching for abusive robocalls, service providers can block or stop these processes and protect their subscribers from fraud and illegal telemarketing. What is Not Yet Known Vendors are using a new technology called STIR / SHAKEN that may prevent robocallers from falsifying their phone numbers. When deployed, traceback for calls is simplified, but it does not work for carriers using older technologies. Robocallers also adapt quickly to new situations, so they may find a way to bypass STIR / SHAKEN. Nobody knows how robocallers interact with their victims and how often they change their strategies. For example, more and more robocalls and scammers are using COVID-19 as a prerequisite to scam people. What’s next? In the years to come, we will continue our research on robocalls. We will investigate if STIR / SHAKEN reduces robocalls. We are also developing techniques to better identify, understand, and assist vendors and law enforcement agencies in robocalling operations. This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It is written by: Sathvik Prasad, North Carolina State University and Bradley Reaves, North Carolina State University. Read more: Robocalls are unstoppable – 3 questions answered about why your phone won’t stop ringing. The Rise and Fall of the Fixed Line: 143 Years Telephones Become More Accessible – And SmartWhy Are There So Many Fools? A neuropsychologist explains that Sathvik Prasad is a member of the USENIX association. Bradley Reaves receives funding from the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research. This research was supported by donations in kind from Bandwidth and NomoRobo. Reaves is a member of the Communications Fraud Control Association, ACM, IEEE, and the USENIX Association.

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