The internet may seem like a scammer’s paradise, but far more people complain about getting fooled by fraud over the phone – and the problem appears to be growing.
Since 2013, complaints about phone scams have doubled, according to the Federal Trade Commission. There were 543,000 complaints of phone fraud in 2016.
Some researchers at Arizona State University are testing a potential solution: smarter caller ID.
The problem with current caller ID is that it’s easy to spoof, said Adam Doupé of ASU’s Security Engineering for Future Computing (SEFCOM). With a few clicks on a computer, a scammer can easily mask their phone number and make it appear to be a government agency or a bank.
“We were actually shocked to learn that caller ID is an optional piece of information that none of the switches on the phone call network check for authenticity,” Doupé said.
Led by PhD student Raymond Tu, a team at SEFCOM decided to investigate an authentication method similar to one used online: the green padlock displayed in secure URLs.
“This green lock icon gives some assurance that you are talking to who you think you're talking to,” said Doupé.
Online, a green padlock icon indicates, among other things, that a website’s domain has been authenticated by a trusted third party. The smart caller ID system would work in a similar way; callers with verified phone numbers would have a green padlock icon in their caller ID.
To obtain the green padlock, companies would need to verify their phone numbers with a third party using a cryptographic signature.
“If anybody else spoofs it, they don’t have that cryptographic signature, so that’s going to fail,” said Doupé.
Unverified calls would display an yellow icon under SEFCOM’s preliminary scheme. Spoofed calls would appear in red. The team plans to test the efficacy of the design interface soon.
“It's going to be a lot more difficult for people to pretend to be somebody else,” said Doupé.
Eventually, they hope to get large carriers like AT&T and Verizon to build the authentication system into their phone networks. The team submitted their idea to the United Nation’s International Telecommunications Union last year, and won an award.
The university applied for a full patent on the technology in March.
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