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Canada's telecom industry faces challenge from deluge of spam phone calls

TORONTO — Canada’s telecom companies say they're close to deploying new technologies that will help combat a surge of spam phone calls — but add they're also working with the industry regulator to bring out more advanced solutions.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has given the industry until Dec. 19 to have systems that block or filter out some illegal phone calls but it has also told service providers they'll have to do more. 

CRTC spokeswoman Patricia Valladao says there are technical reasons for a rise in fraudulent or nuisance calls, including phone systems that use voice over internet protocol (VOIP) for either legitimate or criminal purposes.

"Based on the easy access to this technology, as well as the increase in incidences, the CRTC is taking regulatory measures to better protect Canadians against nuisance calls and scam calls," Valladao says.

For instance, the CRTC wants carriers to put in place a system for tracing the origin of spam calls — and has given them until March 2020 to present a report of the traceback system.

The system is considered to be a vital tool for enforcement of Canada's laws and regulations.

The CRTC also urges consumers to file complaints to Canada's do not call list at www.lnnte-dncl.gc.ca or 1-866-580-DNCL (3625) or 1-888-DNCL-TTY (362-5889) for the hearing impaired.

In the meantime, the CRTC and Canadian telecommunications service providers are taking a series of interim steps.

One of the preliminary steps is called "universal call blocking" which will be applied at the network level to stop malformed and blatantly spoofed numbers such as 000-000-0000.

Bell Canada and Rogers are among the carriers that have committed to have this process in place by Dec. 19.

Bell says it has also applied to the CRTC to conduct a 90-day trial of new call blocking technologies that it's developing "to further protect customers from fraudulent and scam calls."

Telus Corp., on the other hand, says it will put in place a filtering system that blocks most robocalls — an alternative that the CRTC has said would be acceptable if in place by Dec. 19.

"Since Telus Call Control aligns with the CRTC's best practices for call filtering services, Telus is not required to implement universal call blocking, which is far less effective at stopping nuisance calls," says spokeswoman Brandi Rees.

A Rogers statement says it's working with the CRTC and industry partners to address the problem but notes the problem is complex and there will need to be an array of solutions. 

It also notes that smartphones have some features for blocking unwanted calls and there are also free and paid third-party filtering applications on the market. 

However, spoofing is an especially difficult type of unwanted call because there are legitimate reasons for altering a caller's ID — such as when medical staff call patients on behalf of a hospital.

Valladao says there's only one anti-spoofing measure being considered by the CRTC and its American counterpart but it won't be mandatory in the United States until the end of 2019 and details of Canadian adoption are yet to come. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 6, 2019.

Companies in this story: (TSX:BCE, TSX:T, TSX:RCI.B)

David Paddon, The Canadian Press