Robocalls Can Cause A Health Crisis; Here’s How

Photo: Esparta Palma | Flickr | CC By 2.0

The horrors of robocalls seem to not have a real-life impact on a typical user. But when hospitals are receiving hundreds of robocalls a day, the effect can be disastrous and could end up in high casualty medical emergency.

In a recent investigative report from The Washington Post revealed that hospitals are receiving insurmountable amounts of spam robocalls every day and they take up valuable hospital time and the ability of human resources and emergency hotlines to respond to a real emergency on time.

Boston-based Tufts Medical Center is one of the victims of the plaguing of robocalls against hospitals and medical institutions. According to Taylor Lehmann, chief information security officer of Tufts, his facility received more than 4,500 robocalls in just two hours on April 30, 2018. Similarly, H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute also received more than 6,600 times across 90 days — a process that the center’s chief information security officer, Dave Summitt, estimates took up 65 hours of hospital response time.

Spam calls across the world rose in 2018, with some countries seeing a 100% increase in time-wasting calls. Hospitals worry that the amount of time-wasting robocalls will eventually grow to a level that medical facilities can no longer handle and put the entire country in a recurring public health problem. This, according to Lehmann, may increase the chances of a health crisis all the while crippling the ability of hospitals to respond to it appropriately and timely.

And this is just one facet of the problem. Medical institutions are also receiving numerous calls a day purportedly coming from patients and turns out to be just a spoofed call coming from some unscrupulous operators. On the flipside of the coin, patients are also receiving spoofed calls from medical institutions masquerading using real area codes. “Spoofing” disguises one phone number as another, meaning scams offering insurance scams or claiming payments are much more likely to succeed because it seems as if the call is coming from a trusted source.

But to a naked eye, identifying these spoofed calls is near impossible. Meaning, hospital personnel could be fooled into responding to a “patient” call when it was all just bogus, to begin with. In the same manner, patients can also be duped into paying something just because their “medical collection agency” appeared to call them.

Combating the robocalls epidemic

Carriers and telecom companies have been trying to put an end to this problem. In the past months, major telecom providers have announced the inclusion of the SHAKEN/STIR technology in their services to combat the robocalls epidemic. AT&T and Comcast are joining forces in a move that would impact robocalls in the country. Both companies, through a joint press release, announced a cross-network authentication system to verify calls between separate providers. Verizons is also adapting the same technology.

They employed the new “SHAKEN” (Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using toKENs) and “STIR” (Secure Telephone Identity Revisited) protocols meant to curb spoofed phone numbers.

“For example, a call that is illegally ‘spoofed’—or shows a faked number—will fail the SHAKEN/STIR Caller ID verification and will not be marked as verified,” the firms explained. “By contrast, verification will confirm that a call is coming from the identified number or entity.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers and regulators have also moved to try to stop the plaguing of robocalls against Americans. Only recently the Federal Communication Commission voted a move to allow carriers to block robocalls by default.

FCC Chair Ajit Pai, who was previously criticized for his commission’s unsuccessful efforts to end the robocall problems, has circulated a declaratory ruling that, if adopted, would allow phone companies and telecommunication carriers to block unwanted phone calls by default. Also, companies could enable consumers to block calls, not on their contact list.

Furthermore, the Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking would propose a safe harbor for providers that implement network-wide blocking of calls that fail caller authentication under the SHAKEN/STIR framework once it is implemented.

“Allowing call blocking by default could be a big benefit for consumers who are sick and tired of robocalls. By making it clear that such call blocking is allowed, the FCC will give voice service providers the legal certainty they need to block unwanted calls from the outset so that consumers never have to get them,” said Chairman Pai.“And, if this decision is adopted, I strongly encourage carriers to begin providing these services by default—for free—to their current and future customers. I hope my colleagues will join me in supporting this latest attack on unwanted robocalls and spoofing.”

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