The State of Industry Traceback – March 2023

by Josh Bercu

“Hi, this is Officer Gary Cole, calling you from the Department of Social Security Administration….  [T]here is a legal enforcement action filed on your social security number.”

“You should have received something in the mail about your car’s extended warranty.  Since we have not gotten a response, we are giving you a final courtesy call before we close out your file.”

“I’m giving you a final call in regards to your school loans.  I have you prequalified here for the updated forgiveness program and loan discharge.  It is just imperative that we go over the details just as soon as possible because it does look like your status will expire very, very soon.”

In the last few years, you were probably more likely to hear one of these messages than you were to hear from your bank, your child’s school, or your family.  Capitalizing on technology and regulatory changes that made it cheaper and easier to make calls to anyone in the world from anywhere in the world, illegal robocallers invaded the phone network – and they successfully occupied it for years.

That is changing, thanks to the collective work of government and industry.  Routinely the top consumer complaint at government agencies across the country, average monthly do-not-call complaints at the Federal Trade Commission are down 35%.  That’s because many high-volume robocall campaigns are receding.  For instance, once prolific robocalls from fraudsters pretending to be the Social Security Administration are now increasingly rare, as are other high-volume fraud campaigns from overseas call centers.

What has changed? 

Empowered by the Federal Communications Commission, voice service providers block scores of illegal robocalls before they ever reach you, and label others as potential spam so that you’re on guard if you answer.  Voice service providers have also implemented the STIR/SHAKEN call authentication framework and certified in the FCC’s Robocall Mitigation Database that they’ve done so – infusing accountability into the ecosystem as well as new information that can be used by analytics in blocking and labeling decisions. 

But one impactful tool in the arsenal to stop illegal robocalls is industry traceback.  In particular, traceback fueled by the specter of enforcement by federal and state authorities has been a gamechanger.  Traceback is the process of identifying where an illegal call came from, including who made the call and every provider that had the call on its network.  In the United States, the Industry Traceback Group, often referred to as the ITG, is responsible for the industry traceback process.  And per FCC rules, all voice providers here must comply with the ITG’s traceback requests.  Without it, voice service providers often have no way of knowing where a call originated.  Indeed, illegal and unwanted robocalls often are carried by four or more providers from across the U.S. and the globe.  Over 90% of completed tracebacks end with the offending illegal robocaller kicked off the network or warned.  The combination of industry traceback and targeted law enforcement using traceback results has proven to get illegal robocall campaigns permanently off the phone network.

Today, auto warranty robocalls are virtually nonexistent, whereas a year ago they were indiscriminately hitting tens of millions of Americans each day.  Robocalls offering unsolicited and unwanted student loan products – including to scores of people without student loans – are also disappearing from the phone network.

There’s no doubt that there are still far too many illegal robocalls.  And there are new trends of concern, such as AI-powered robocalls that mimic a real conversation and bad actors that make illegal calls using real rather than spoofed numbers.  Worse, there’s an increasing trend of highly targeted – and unfortunately, highly successful – multichannel attacks that combine a call with an email or text.

Robocallers’ “innovations” are an important reminder:  Whether an overseas criminal is trying to defraud a vulnerable loved one of thousands of dollars or a relentless telemarketer is ignoring restrictions about how they may contact you, these bad actors do not and will not stop trying

The good news is that the industry and law enforcement community innovate too.  Today, it is riskier and harder to keep making or enabling illegal robocalls than it has been in years.  That trend will continue thanks to the Industry Traceback Group’s commitment to keep innovating in close partnership with industry and government partners.  Until consumers stop getting illegal calls they don’t want, the ITG is on the beat.

Josh Bercu is Executive Director of the Industry Traceback Group, designated by the FCC as the official traceback consortium to traceback illegal robocalls, and VP, Policy & Advocacy for USTelecom – The Broadband Association.  Josh also serves on the leadership team of the FTC’s Stop Senior Scams Advisory Group, Technology and New Methods Committee and on the FCC’s North American Numbering Council, Call Authentication Trust Anchor Working Group.