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The Federal Communications Commission recently adopted rules that allow phone companies to block robocalls by default. But that won't bring immediate relief to your robocall headaches.

The FCC rules give companies more freedom to block calls but doesn’t force them to do so. And there are many phone companies that aren’t yet prepared to deploy an important tool to tackle robocalls effectively—a call-authentication technology called STIR/SHAKEN.

STIR/SHAKEN can be used to block certain calls, especially those with masked numbers intended to trick you into answering. Once that system is fully operational, it should eliminate these “spoofed” calls.

But STIR/SHAKEN won’t automatically block the many calls that come from legal robocallers, such as bill collectors, political campaigns, and some telemarketers. However, it will help label them so that you can better identify who's calling and decide whether you want to answer.

STIR/SHAKEN also may not be fully effective with international calls. That's because it can only authenticate calls from a country that has its own STIR/SHAKEN system.

As the robocall situation improves, here are four key things to know about what to expect and what you can do to protect yourself. 

Be Patient

Consumers who use big carriers like AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile—the so-called “tier one” networks—should start to notice a reduction in the number of robocalls come January, says Jim Tyrrell, senior director of product marketing for Transaction Network Services (TNS), which provides robocall detection services for Verizon and Sprint.

More On Robocalls

But if you use a smaller carrier, it may be a few years before you see a decline in robocalls.

Tyrrell says that smaller carriers—the “tier two” and “tier three” providers that may be the only choice for people in some rural areas—still have to make the expensive digital upgrades needed to run STIR/SHAKEN. What's more, as long as these gaps in coverage remain, customers of tier-one phone companies will also not be fully protected.

If you think of the current robocall problem as critical, or “red,” Tyrrell sees things easing into the “orange” zone toward the middle of next year, when STIR/SHAKEN is more widespread.

“I think it probably gets to ‘green’ maybe in two to three years,” he says.

Add More Protection

Whether or not your phone company moves swiftly, downloading a third-party call-blocking app or signing up for your phone company’s separate robocall blocking service—which companies will continue to offer after the STIR/SHAKEN rollout—could provide more protection.

These services can serve as a supplement to the call-blocking and labeling functionality of STIR/SHAKEN. They let you use filters to choose which calls can come through and which ones to block.

You can also use robocall-blocking apps like Nomorobo, which charges $2 per month for its service (there's no cost for landlines), and free apps such as Hiya, Mr. Number, RoboKiller, and YouMail. One caution: If you’re planning to download an app like those, read its privacy policy first. Some apps, such as Nomorobo, don’t access your contact lists, but some of the free apps do.

(For even more privacy protection, there are premium services that offer tools such as VPN access that can safeguard your data on public WiFi networks.)

Robocalls Won't Disappear

Once STIR/SHAKEN is in place and working with robocall-blocking apps, a significant number of calls should be blocked. But bear in mind that nothing can block all unwanted calls.

“We've always said we need a war chest of weapons to fight against robocalls,” says Chris Drake, chief technology officer for iconectiv, a firm that secures digital networks. In May it won the contract to administer the telecom industry’s implementation of the new technology.

For instance, consumers may still be plagued by robocalls that originate overseas. Tyrrell says that it’s still unclear whether the industry will be able to protect consumers against these calls. That's because STIR/SHAKEN can authenticate calls only from countries that also implement the STIR/SHAKEN system or some system that can digitally communicate with it.

“I'm sure that we'll have cooperation with Canada and probably a lot of the other first-world countries. Based on the data that we’ve seen, about 75 percent of the bad calls originate within the U.S.,” says Tyrrell. “That means that about 25 percent originate overseas, and that's really where the hole is."

Tyrrell says that to further help prevent robocalls, the FCC and other regulators will have to step up cooperation with their international counterparts to make STIR/SHAKEN more widely available.   

“How do we extend STIR/SHAKEN beyond beyond the U.S. so that it becomes more of a global platform?” he asks. “We need to reduce the number of holes robocallers can pop their heads into.”

Your Phone Can Help

Some handset makers are beginning to build robocall-blocking tools into their devices. If your phone has a tool like this, use it.

For example, Google recently unveiled a new tool, Call Screen, that's built into its Pixel 2, 2XL, 3, and 3XL smartphones. When you receive a call from any number, you can tap “screen call” on your home screen and Google Assistant will answer it for you and ask the caller to identify herself and the reason for calling. When a caller responds, a real-time transcript of the response is displayed.

If it’s someone you want to speak to, you can simply answer the call. If it’s a robocall, you can automatically report it to Google as spam as well as log it or blacklist it locally on your device. The tool will then block the number from calling you in the future. Note, though, that while this tool (and others like it) screens the call, it doesn't prevent the phone from ringing and interrupting you.

Apple’s next version of the iPhone operating system, iOS 13, will have more privacy protections, including a new setting called "whitelisting" that will allow users to automatically block calls from all noncontacts. Those calls will be sent directly to voicemail.

Be sure to use caution if you plan to automatically block calls not on your contacts list. You’ll want to check that your list is robust and update it regularly so you don’t miss calls you want to receive.