Can the Mobile Industry Solve the Robocalling Crisis?

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At best, they’re annoying. At worst, they defraud. Either way, robocalls have reached record highs in the US, and by far trump all other consumer complaints received by the Federal Trade Commission.

Robocalls, as opposed to live cold-calls, are prerecorded voice messages blasted out in the thousands by a computer program. Spammers can place them from anywhere in the world to peddle just about anything, from home security systems to insurance. If all goes according to plan, the recipient presses 1 and is directed to a call center, where a sales rep gets the opportunity to pitch a product their target doesn’t necessarily demand.

These unsolicited sales pitches are not new, and robocalling even has uses as benign as school announcements and doctor appointment reminders in some cases. But increasingly, a combination of robocall technology and social engineering has led unwitting consumers into traps. “Bank services” plot to steal consumers’ money, fake IRS agents threaten fines, debt relief scams promise to settle loans, and bad actors use VoIP technology to trick caller ID services by “spoofing” numbers with recipients’ own area codes. Can anything be done to protect consumers from this growing epidemic?

Former efforts: reactive regulation

No matter what they attempt to sell, virtually all robocalls were made illegal in 2009. Companies like Google have filed major suits against robocallers posing as employees. The FTC has also sued, subjecting robocall networks to bans and multimillion-dollar penalties. Its National Do Not Call Registry changed the cold-calling industry dramatically and has blocked 230 million numbers to date.

However, the financial benefits of robocalling often outweigh the risk of becoming the next to be blocked or sued. VoIP costs robocall providers next to nothing, while Consumers Union estimates that consumers lose $350 million a year to their scams.

“We continue to bring cases and shut down as many folks as we can,” says Janice Kopec, an FTC robocall expert. “What we recognized, though, was we shut down an operation and another one springs up behind it almost instantaneously.”

The only solution: proactive tech

By last year’s reports, the FTC received 4.5 million robocall complaints. But American consumers and businesses were plagued with 30.5 billion unwanted calls in 2017, which broke the 2016 record by 1.2 billion.

Clearly, consumers haven’t put total faith in the gatekeepers. Critics consider the Do Not Call Registry more of a Band-Aid than a solution—the most a consumer can do is report a violation, and the FTC only prosecutes for numbers that crop up in enough complaints. Not only is this unlikely, but robocallers are almost impossible to identify and the FTC lacks the resources to blacklist every unwanted call.

It’s taken another evolution of technology to empower the consumer to do more: mobile privacy and call-blocking software. Recognizing they can’t do it all, the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission have authorized phone companies to help reduce unwanted calls with systems that send blacklisted numbers straight to voicemail, block calls entirely, or allow consumers to create their own “white list” of approved numbers. Several of these technologies are now available through wireless providers and third parties.

At Lionbridge, we recently ran a test to find out how well the technology works. Specifically, we looked at the four major carriers—AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon—and the apps or services they offer respective customers. Using a dataset of 1,000 known telemarketers, spammers, and scammers, we placed calls to several devices installed with these apps to see which identified calls with the highest degree of accuracy. The highest we saw was 91 percent, and the lowest a not-so-good 25 percent.

Thirty billion unwanted calls aside, these data show a lingering opportunity for the bad guys to win. It’s going to take accuracy much closer to 100 percent for consumers to recover trust in their phones and for legitimate businesses to win back opportunities to connect with their customers—but more importantly, for consumers and businesses to keep their information safe. On the upside, the data show room for improvement among emerging players in the mobile privacy space. The better the technologies at consumers’ disposal, the better our chances of turning the epidemic on its head.

Learn more about our study and emerging solutions here.

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