10 July 2019

It has been said the 1800s were the Golden Age of scams. This is when the term "con man" rose to prominence, and according to the New York Times, it also happens to be the period where the iconic Brooklyn Bridge was sold on multiple occasions to buyers who had no suspicion they were about to be fleeced.

In a fictional retelling, the exiled con artist even managed to return under the guise of a French entertainer, and went on to become Mayor of the city!

Back then, options for communications were limited, and swindlers could move freely from town to town, pulling off the same cons without being caught.

While history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, it does serve as a useful guide.

Scammers, and the human propensity to occasionally misplace trust, aren’t going to disappear anytime soon.

In the modern setting, this underscores the pressing need to combat scammers who now operate, at will, over global communications platforms.

Telephone scams aren’t just a nuisance – they are harmful and on the rise. If we don’t take reasonable action, things will only get worse.

According to the ACCC’s ScamWatch, Australians lost $107 million to scams last year. There were 177,516 scams reported to Scamwatch in 2018, up from 91,617 in 2014.

The amount of money Australians are losing every month to NBN related scams has nearly tripled in 2019, with older Australians being the most vulnerable.

So when 7 in 10 Australians say they don’t believe enough has been done to protect individuals, by any objective measure, they’re right.

Nobody needs persuading there is a serious problem here. The question is how best to address it, and quickly.

One of the key challenges is the ability of overseas scammers to generate illegal calls which appear as Australian numbers, otherwise known as “call spoofing”.

When your phone rings and the caller ID appears to be a legitimate Australian number, that call is more likely to be answered. This allows scammers to get a foot in the door, and with that comes the increased risk of harm to consumers.

Call spoofing also makes it more difficult for telecommunications operators to block such numbers because that number could legitimately belong to someone in Australia.

It seems odd that criminals based overseas can effortlessly use Australian telephone numbers they don’t own to generate calls and rip people off.

The explanations for this vary, but clearly the international standards and interconnect arrangements that underpin voice calling were not adequately designed to safeguard against this problem.

Voice providers who act as international gateways for calls into Australia may also have scope to better police suspicious caller number IDs before permitting the call.

In the absence of such arrangements, domestic interventions to protect the integrity of the telephone numbering system and reduce the impact of scams are beginning to look increasingly desirable.

Network-based caller ID authentication is one option that would restore trust, strengthen privacy, and reduce scams by making unauthorised numbers detectable.

Another potential tool is having a dynamic scam blacklist to enable telecommunications companies to offer consumers the ability to opt into services that detect and block suspected scam calls. For older Australians who are being regularly harassed and ripped off, such a service could offer very welcome benefits.

Encouragingly, other nations are now showing that progress is possible.

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has declared combatting robocalls as its top consumer priority, and called for US telcos to introduce a solution to verify caller ID information.

AT&T and Comcast recently tested their first authenticated call between two networks, and full implementation is forecast by the end of this year.

Just this month, the FCC also wrote to US voice providers granting them permission to introduce call-blocking services for consumers as a default feature.

In the UK, British Telecom has introduced Call Protect, a free opt-in service which combines network intelligence and user feedback to prevent calls from numbers on a scam blacklist from reaching households.

This service was reported to reduce the volume of nuisance calls by 65 per cent, with over 2 million UK households signing up in the first three months.

And close to home in New Zealand, a newly established industry code seeks to improve co-operation between telecommunication providers to reduce scam calls.

In any of these, and other potential pathways, the telecommunications industry will be indispensable partners if we are serious about stepping up the fight.

Yet even with the latest technical solutions, it won’t be possible to stop every scam call. This is why ongoing education initiatives must be a critical part of any strategy.

As Parliamentarians we have a responsibility to listen to the community and act on this burgeoning issue.

Australians are fed up and expect meaningful action — and from the standpoint of Labor their expectations are justified.

This opinion piece was first published in Innovation Aus on 10 July 2019.