CRTC announces new plan to help prevent nuisance phone calls

After years of complaints from Canadians about fraudulent telephone calls and voicemail spam, the CRTC says it’s stepping up its fight.

Canada’s federal telecom regulator said Monday that telecom companies have until the end of next September to implement a new tool that puts the onus on carriers to recognize suspicious calls amid a scourge of caller ID spoofing that has seen fraudsters pose as Canada Revenue Agency auditors to defraud consumers.

The new technology, called STIR/SHAKEN, is designed to allow service providers to confirm the identities of callers and assure consumers that calls are coming from legitimate parties.

Officials say the new system — on top of call blocking technologies already being implemented in Canada — won’t stop all scam calls, but it will add a layer of prevention and could be especially effective in flagging illegitimate calls originating from internet-based services such as WhatsApp.

Eamon Hoey, a Toronto-based management consultant focused on telecom, said carriers are motivated to implement effective scam or spoof call prevention systems since the calls constitute unproductive traffic on their networks. “The onus is on the carrier,” he said, adding that the system’s effectiveness is a function of effort and resources.

“It doesn’t cure the problem,” Hoey added, although he said STIR/SHAKEN has the potential to identify up to 60 per cent of illegitimate calls.

“Nuisance calls are a major irritant for many Canadians,” Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission chair and CEO Ian Scott said in a statement. “The new framework will enable Canadians to know, before they answer the phone, whether a call is legitimate or whether it should be treated with suspicion.”

Once the Secure Telephone Identity Revisited/Signature-based Handling of Asserted Information Using Tokens technology is in place, it will allow users to see if the origins of calls they receive have been verified.

The framework does not work on landline phones, although the CRTC says telecoms are also expected to meet a Dec. 19 deadline to implement universal call-blocking. That system prevents internet, mobile and landline calls, but only those that don’t comply with the North American Numbering Plan and may not stop spam calls that come from numbers that appear legitimate.

Canada’s major telecom companies say they are in the process of implementing call-blocking to combat calls from those who can change the information that appears on the caller ID display to misrepresent themselves — a tactic known as “spoofing’ — and are on track to meet the deadline imposed by the CRTC.

A spokesperson for Bell Canada added that the Montreal-based carrier has also applied to the CRTC to conduct a 90-day trial of customized call blocking technology it has developed “to further protect against fraudulent and scam calls.”

Developed by web engineers and pushed by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, the STIR/SHAKEN framework adds a digital certificate, meaning that calls travelling through interconnected phone networks would have their caller IDs “signed” as legitimate by originating carriers and validated by other carriers before reaching consumers. It has already been adopted in parts of the U.S.

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CRTC officials said incoming calls could be labelled with a yellow triangle to indicate that the call is suspicious, or a red square to notify users that the call could be spam, although the commission will work with carriers to determine exactly what call display changes will be adopted.

Law enforcement authorities have warned Canadians about a spike in calls from numbers purported to be from government agencies including the CRA, with victims telling police that someone acting as a member of the agency demanded bitcoin or gift cards as payment for false debts.

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre has reported that 4,695 people have lost more than $16.7 million to telescammers since 2014. The CRTC says about 40 per cent of the complaints it receives about unwanted calls are about spoofing.

Michael Lewis


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