Will Spam Be the End of the PSTN?

First Orion, a provider of phone call and data analysis solutions, this week released its "2018 Scam Call Trends and Projections Report." By combining specific call patterns and behaviors with other phone number attributes, First Orion predicts that nearly half of all inbound mobile calls will be fraudulent in 2019... unless the industry adopts and implements more effective call protection strategies.

Over the past year, First Orion's data shows a marked increase in mobile scam calls -- from 3.7% of total calls in 2017 to 29.2% in 2018 -- and that number is projected to reach 44.6% by early 2019. Scammers use several techniques to get people to pick up the phone, but the most popular method is known as neighborhood spoofing, which happens when a scammer disguises its phone number so it displays as a local number on a user's caller ID. To increase the likelihood of someone answering the call, a scammer may spoof its phone number to match the area code and three-digit prefix of its target.

Setting up a spam calling site is as simple as using an open-source IP PBX and some SIP trunks. Once the spammer has done this, it can use this originating branch exchange to insert a calling number and ID into the signaling sequence. The carrier that receives that call request doesn't check the calling number and ID before placing the call into the PSTN, so calls can be labeled however the originating system wants. This method of spoofing has become the way most common way spammers place make their calls.

To combat this rapidly growing epidemic, First Orion is offering a new solution called CallPrinting, aimed at enabling carriers to identify new scam techniques and thwart fraudulent calls quickly and accurately for their customers. First Orion said it intends to deploy into a tier-one U.S. carrier's network this fall and expects to be able to mitigate the volume of scam traffic significantly beginning in next quarter.

While CallPrinting and other solutions that try to guess at the nature of the traffic can reduce a percentage of spam calls, the reality is that the only way to eliminate spoofing is to hold the carriers responsible for policing the numbers and caller IDs their customers put on their networks. By not monitoring for and not assuring that originating calling systems are using valid numbers and caller IDs, the carriers are essentially complicit in ruining the communications system. Carriers, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and international agencies should immediately attack this issue. All carriers should be required to check both inbound number and caller ID for each originating call on their networks. Carriers that forward fraudulent calls should be fined significantly.

The rapid increase in mobile voice spam may very well become an existential issue for the PSTN and derivative technologies. For most consumers, the home phone has become useless as the majority of calls received are spam/telemarketing. Many simply no longer answer the phone. The same may be coming rapidly to the mobile market. If the majority of calls are spam, consumers will stop paying attention to the phone and use text, video, or other options that don't use the PSTN (or the public packet telephony network for the IP/SIP instantiation). The result will accelerate the movement from the PSTN to pure IP-based communications solutions such as WebRTC or proprietary solutions like Apple FaceTime.

It's time for the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission in the U.S., the EU telecom regulators, and the global telephony consortia to address this issue aggressively. Without some action, the large number of nuisance calls will rapidly push movement to more use of non-PSTN communications, further deprecating the PSTN as a trusted means of communications. This has the potential to be a major economic and social issue over the coming years.

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