Exclusive: Scam calls from foreign countries to be blocked under landmark plans

Asia's Tech News Daily

Scam illustration

Foreign fraudsters will be stopped from making hundreds of millions of scam phone calls under landmark plans to protect the British public.

Major phone networks have agreed to automatically block calls made from abroad if they show up as a UK number, the Telegraph has learned.

The unprecedented move comes after phone companies were criticised by the National Crime Agency for failing to tackle a huge rise in scam calls and texts over the past year.

Many of the scam calls are made by foreign gangs using technology to make it appear as if the call is coming from within the UK. Others trick their victims out of thousands of pounds by ‘spoofing’ genuine numbers belonging to British banks.

Watch: Google to clamp down on financial scams in UK

But after talks with Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, major networks have agreed to block nearly every call coming from abroad if it shows up with a UK Caller ID.

The only calls allowed through will be those made from roaming mobiles or from call centres proven to be legitimate.

Ofcom believes the move will prevent “hundreds of millions of scam calls” every year, according to a source close to the discussions.

Some major networks have already begun blocking the calls with the others expected to follow within months.

“We have identified that a large proportion of scam calls are made from abroad in this way,” the source told the Telegraph.

“This isn’t a silver bullet, but we believe that blocking this traffic will have a significant impact.”

Guidance on the blocking of international inbound calls has been drawn up at Ofcom’s request by NICC, the UK telecoms standards body which represents major networks including 02, TalkTalk and Virgin.

It comes after Ofcom discovered that scammers targeted nearly 45 million people with fraudulent texts and calls over the summer.

Landline users were being plagued with fraudulent calls, with 61pc of people aged 75 and over reported receiving a potential scam call to their house phone.

Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, this week announced a Joint Fraud Taskforce to tackle the “devastating impact” of a 24pc overall rise in fraud during the Covid pandemic.

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) this month announced plans to force phone companies to block millions of scam texts.

However Whitehall sources insisted the approach would not work in this country because much of the UK network still relies on copper-based ISDN technology.

Ofcom is now “encouraging” UK companies to accelerate the move to internet-based VOIP, which allows scam texts to be more easily detected and blocked.

Phone networks are already using artificial intelligence to spot scam texts and block the numbers responsible.

Regulators are also examining whether customers should be forced to show their ID when buying multiple SIM cards, often used by scammers to send millions of scam text messages.

However Ofcom is understood to have concerns that doing so would “marginalise” vulnerable groups who may not possess identification.

“There is no single answer to how to stop scam texts, unfortunately,” one senior source said.

“It’s rather like whack a mole because the scammers can adapt so quickly to everything we try to do.”

Unlike the FCC, Ofcom currently has no formal powers to compel phone firms to take action against scammers.

But the watchdog is prepared to request those powers from the government if networks are seen to be “dragging their feet” over change, it is understood.

It comes after a National Crime Agency chief criticised mobile phone companies earlier this year for their failure to crack down on text scammers.

Graeme Biggar, the director general of the National Economic Crime Centre, said investigators wanted to see “a more consistent effort” from networks to fight the problem.

Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom's Networks and Communications Group Director, said:

“Tackling this complex problem requires a coordinated effort from the police, Government, other regulators and industry.

“We’ve been working with telecoms companies to implement technical solutions, including blocking at source, suspicious international calls that are masked by a UK number. We expect these measures to be introduced as a priority, and at pace, to ensure customers are better protected.”

Watch: COVID and stimulus scams have cost Americans $585 million so far

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