While measures to block those annoyances grind on, two efforts are proposing a different solution that amounts to â€œtrust someone.â€ They take the blue-checkmark approach of social networks that verify users and apply it to texts and calls from legitimate businesses.
The higher-profile venture comes from Google, which on Dec. 12 announced what it calls Verified SMS. The technology lets participating businesses send texts that arrive in Googleâ€™s Messages app for Android with the logo and title of their choice, plus a checkmark verification badge.
This happens without Google seeing the content of any messages. Instead, a companyâ€™s agent app and its customerâ€™s Messages app send paired encryption keys and then compare â€œhashesâ€â€”mathematical abstractions of the messageâ€”to confirm that both the sender and the content match. This required exchangeÂ necessitates a data connection, which is not true of garden-variety SMS.
Google lists 1-800 Flowers, Banco Bradesco, Kayak, Payback, and Sofi as participating firms; itâ€™s also using Verified SMS to send its own two-step verification text messages. One of the firms providing Verified SMS services, the business-communications company Twilio, lists Expensify as another early adopter.
â€œAs rich channels for business messaging (WhatsApp, RCS, Messenger, and so on) pop up with features like profile branding and verification, SMS has to keep up,â€ said Simon Khalaf, Twilioâ€™s senior vice president and general manager for messaging, in an email sent by a publicist.Â He added that Twilio isnâ€™t â€œcurrentlyâ€ charging for the technology.
The big catch is that Verified SMS only works with Googleâ€™s own Messages app. It isnâ€™t compatible with the one Samsung provides on its Galaxy phonesâ€”and certainly not with Appleâ€™s Messages app. So itâ€™s even more limited in its potential audience than RCS messaging, the long-stalled update to text messaging that Google has been pushing wireless carriers to support.
â€œWhether any other operating system or apps will ever get a service thatâ€™s compatible, or even similar, remains to be seen,â€ said Sophos principal research scientist Paul Ducklin, in an email sent by a publicist. â€œThe whole system still seems a bit experimentalâ€”itâ€™s only available in eight countries at the momentâ€”so itâ€™s probably too early to say how it will play out.â€
Verified SMS doesnâ€™t do anything for phone calls, but third parties are working on that. In August 2018, a Little Rock, Arkansas, company called First Orion started testing its own caller idea: a service called Engage that puts a companyâ€™s name, logo, and why-itâ€™s-calling message on a phoneâ€™s screen.
But the technology doesnâ€™t depend on a particular smartphone or app; wireless carriers have to support it on their networks. First Orion lists Sprint and T-Mobile as doing that. T-Mobile was among the first companies to adopt Engageâ€™s branded calling for its own customer support.
At a demo during the MWC Barcelona trade show in February, First Orion executives said T-Mobile saw its call pick-up rate go from 30 to 80% after adopting that feature.
But that leaves the two largest wireless carriers, AT&T and Verizon, not supporting this feature.
â€œThe other carriers have been slow to move here,â€ Gavin Macomber, First Orionâ€™s senior vice president for marketing and communications, acknowledged in an email. He estimated that about 20% of U.S. mobile users can receive Engage-branded calls from companies.
Then thereâ€™s the fact that First Orionâ€™s service only helps when companies decide to pay for it, based on their call volume and the level of personalization in a call. â€œBrands will pay more to display an urgent, detailed fraud message, for example,â€ Macomber said.
First Orion will have competition at some point: In August, Twilio announced its own verified-call service that will provide the same sort of branded identification of calls from companies. But for now, itâ€™s like a lot of products in tech: confined to an invitation-only beta.