This Industry Viewpoint was authored by Bill Versen, President, Communications Market and Chief Marketing Officer of Transaction Network Services (TNS)
In the interest of not burying the lead, let’s state the obvious: robocalls are not going to disappear anytime soon. Americans received nearly 79 billion robocalls in 2021, down 26% compared to the 106.9 billion robocalls Americans received at the pre-pandemic peak in 2019 but undeniably a mind-numbing total that cannot simply be unwound overnight.
2021 established itself as a pivotal year in the fight against robocalls, however. Aggressive steps taken by regulators, policymakers, and carriers yielded tangible, positive results – not all of which are fully transparent to consumers yet. From our perspective there are four key ways the robocall and robotext landscape will evolve in 2022, changes that should drive strategies and tactics to combat scammers, spammers and spoofers.
The FCC Will Turn Attention Beyond Tier-1 Carriers
Throughout 2021, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) pursued bold actions to curb robocalls. This included levying the largest fine – $225 million – in FCC history, cultivating a robocall mitigation database that requires operators to log their efforts to fight robocalls, drafting multiple cease-and-desist letters to operators who transmitted illegal robocall activity, and requiring service providers to implement STIR/SHAKEN in the Internet Protocol portions of their networks by June 30, 2021.
The results have been positive: Transaction Network Services’ (TNS) data shows more than 56% of the total calls made in December 2021 by top Tier-1 carriers that had implemented STIR/SHAKEN solutions were verified, up from 35% at the beginning of last year. Furthermore, less than five percent of high-risk robocall activity originates on Tier-1 networks.
Tier-1 carriers’ call authentication success has prompted bad actors to do what they do best; adapt their tactics and identify new vulnerabilities. For now, that means migrating robocall campaigns to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) networks and smaller carriers. In 2021, VoIP networks were responsible for 66% of all high-risk calls, and 61% of all nuisance calls originated from VoIP telephone numbers – representing the two most significant sources of these unwanted calls.
But much work remains to be done with call authentication. US PIRG Education Fund, an independent, non-partisan group that works for consumers and the public interest, tracked that among 3,063 providers that reported their status to the FCC as of Sept. 3, only 17% said they’d completely implemented call authentication technology, and 27% indicated partial implementation.
Increasing these percentages is squarely in the sights of the FCC, and TNS anticipates regulatory efforts to leverage the robocall mitigation database more fully. The database will enable the FCC to see who hasn’t equipped their networks with STIR/SHAKEN and determine what those organizations are doing to mitigate illegal robocall traffic originating on their networks.
The Rise of Robotexts
In October, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced a proposed rule that would require mobile providers to block illegal robotext activity. The Agency is responding to a 146% increase in robotext complaints compared to the prior year. With increased regulations surrounding robocalls, both the FCC and carriers recognize that robotexts are fertile ground to bombard consumers with scams and disinformation.
There are myriad factors behind a rise in robotexts that TNS anticipates will accelerate in 2022. One is that it is difficult for carriers to determine if the recently green-lit 10-digit long code (10DLC) robotexts are legitimate. Consumers are very familiar with popular 6-digit long codes when it comes to receiving alerts and confirmations for appointments, reservations, and purchases, and these are easier for carriers to validate. But they are more challenging for legitimate organizations to manage and optimize.
With the emergence of 10DLCs, identifying whether these texts are generated by humans or applications is difficult, and until carriers have 10DLC products to which something like call authentication technology can be applied, spammers can use a lot of numbers and roll to the next batch without getting caught.
Restoring Consumer Trust is About More than Blocking Calls
In 2022 carriers will get better at filtering robocalls, the FCC and policymakers will get better at thwarting bad actors, and the industry will get better at delivering data analytics to support all of these efforts. But blocking calls is half the battle; improvements must be made in giving consumers the confidence to answer legitimate, wanted calls, and that can’t happen without restoring trust in voice calling.
The current call answer rate by consumers for unmarked phone numbers is 11%; a startling number for organizations such as doctors’ offices, pharmacies, schools, small businesses, and others that need to reach people in a timely fashion. The consequences of low consumer answer rates were crystallized throughout the COVID-19 pandemic when contract tracers found it challenging to notify individuals of test results.
When it comes to improving trust in voice calling – and in turn answer rates – the data is overwhelming: providing more incoming call context and information via branded calling is critical. A 2021 survey conducted by global market research firm Kantar shows that 43% of US adults still answer calls from unknown numbers for fear of missing an important call, which is why nearly six in 10 of those surveyed would answer a call if the caller ID displayed the logo of a brand they recognize. Carriers recognize the value of branded calling, and TNS believes 2022 will be the year it progresses from proof-of-concept to commercial subscriber deployments.
2022 US Midterm Elections will Test Citizens’ Patience
Let’s turn back the clock to Election Day 2020, when Americans were targeted with 8.25 million robocalls. In fact, from July to October of that year, political robocalls accounted for approximately 10% of the total unwanted call volume, helping to explain why 54% of Americans believed robotexts were used to undermine confidence in the 2020 US election.
Political robocalls and robotexts never come to a complete stop, and as we inch towards the 2022 November midterm elections, the next wave is coming. 79% of those surveyed by Kantar believe all political robotexts and robocalls should be banned until there is a better way to filter those that are legitimate from those that are nuisance/scams. Voters are also increasingly aware that the intent isn’t always to scam them out of money and personal information — 56% of Americans believe they have received a political robotext with misinformation over the past 12 months.
Communications from candidates, campaigns and other groups pose unique challenges, given the legitimacy and legality protecting most call-originator initiatives. The extent to which political robocalls and robotexts disrupt the lives of voters and the democratic process will guide potential regulatory and policy changes considered for the next Presidential election.
Bad actors will continue to adapt their tools and tactics in 2022, but advances in cloud computing, big data, and machine learning are raising the costs for these bad actors as they must work very hard to maintain any one strategy for too long. Combined with policy, regulatory, and carrier efforts to combat unwanted calls and texts, consumers will see tangible evidence of progress in the year ahead.
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