The head of the Federal Communications Commission told phone companies earlier this month that they better do something about robocalls. Or else.

“Combating illegal robocalls is our top consumer priority at the FCC,” Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement after submitting letters to leading telecom and tech companies telling them to get with the program.

He said they need to implement technology that can identify robocalls before they make it to people’s phones, often via “spoofing” that misleads Caller ID systems.

“By this time next year, I expect that consumers will begin to see this on their phones,” Pai said. “If it does not appear that this system is on track to get up and running next year, then we will take action to make sure that it does.”

Asked to elaborate, an FCC spokesman declined to engage in “speculation.”

I’m figuring this is little more than posturing from an FCC chief who has adopted a decidedly industry-friendly tone. Still, points for Pai for highlighting what a pain robocalls have become.

According to Irvine, Calif., tech firm YouMail, which makes robocall-blocking software, 5.1 billion robocalls were placed nationwide in October. That’s more than 170 million a day.

“It’s clearly an epidemic,” said Alex Quilici, YouMail’s chief executive. “It’s gaining because it’s extremely easy for scammers to do. It’s almost unstoppable.”

Robocalls are such a plague that few people I know even answer their landlines anymore. All calls are either filtered through services such as NoMoRobo or sent straight to answering machines.

Thanks to spoofing, you just can’t tell who is calling. Robocallers can make a call look like it’s from your neighbor, or a local school, or the police.

That’s what Pai is talking about when he said phone companies need to roll out technology that ensures every call is from who it’s supposed to be from.

The technology is called Shaken/Stir, a system that issues a digital “token” at the outset of a call. That token is verified when the call reaches its intended recipient. If the tokens match, the call receives a thumbs-up on your cellphone or Caller ID screen.

A spoofed call wouldn’t pass muster and would receive a thumbs-down, and the recipient would know not to bother answering.

So why aren’t we already enjoying Shaken/Stir? Because it’s pricey.

It will cost millions of dollars to implement the system industrywide, and the country’s thousands of phone-service providers would rather not cut into their profits.

AT&T told me that it’s “working to implement a new industry standard” with Shaken/Stir. The FCC said Pai won’t tolerate any lollygagging.

YouMail’s Quilici said he thinks it’s possible that consumers will see some robocall relief by next year. But don’t expect robocalls to be eradicated entirely. Like e-mail spam, service providers will stop much, if not most, of it but not all.

“Hopefully robocalls will get to the point where they’re just a minor annoyance, like how the occasional spam for Viagra ends up being a minor annoyance in your inbox,” Quilici said.

That’s the yardstick for success, the Viagra spam standard?

I can live with that.


David Lazarus is a Los Angeles Times columnist.