The inevitable and inescapable rise of robocalls

Though federal regulation tried to dial back automated phone marketing, during the 2016 campaign American voters have been battered by literally billions of unsolicited calls.

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The next time your phone rings from an unknown number, don't answer it. It's as likely to be a robot as it is a human.

The 2016 presidential election is the most technologically advanced election in history. To get out the vote, each campaign employs gamified applications, big data-based mobile ad targeting, and vertical social media. Yet your old-school, seven-digit phone number--not just the phone itself--is at the nucleus of each campaign's mobilization strategy.

Robocalls have been a staple of political campaigns since the 1980s. This election cycle, automated robotic phone calls that deliver prerecorded messages soliciting donations and encouraging constituents to vote are at an all-time high. American voters have been pummelled by billions--yes, billions--of unsolicited robocalls.

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According to telecommunication management company YouMail, in the first half of the year voters received nearly 18.7 billion calls. In May alone, according to the company's robocall index, consumers were buzzed 2.49 billion times, a 6.3% increase over April's call number. By August, the number of automated calls rose to 2.6 billion.

Although it is unambiguously illegal for private companies to place telemarketing calls to wireless customers, political campaigns and noncommercial entities like political campaigns, unions, and grassroots organizations are exempt from the FCC's Do Not Call list. For this reason, Americans have been hammered by unsolicited political robocalls during the 2016 presidential campaign.

The call spam business is a massive industry because the amount of active phone numbers in North America is staggering. Telecommunication service providers deliver data to the North American Numbering Plan Administrator (NANPA) twice per year. In conjunction with the FCC the organization produces a report called the numbering resource utilization forecast. According to the document in 2010 there were over 300 million wireless customers and over 800 million active phone numbers in the United States.

930 robocalls are placed every second somewhere in the U.S. each month, according to the YouMail report. Atlanta is the most robocalled city in the United States and is on target to hit 1 billion automated calls in 2016. Columbus, OH, generated nearly 80 million calls at the end of the presidential primary process in May.

Image: YouMail

TechRepublic asked YouMail CEO Alex Quilici to articulate the business and role of robocalls with respect to the 2016 election.

How do robocalls work?

A robocall is a call that is dialed in an automated way. For example, a computer selects a number from a database, then places the call. When someone answers, the call is transferred to a human, or an automated recording is played.

At the simplest level, telephony hardware is low cost and allows a computer to place outbound calls, effectively a modem. [Calls] can be feature rich and can do things like record [messages], and detect when people answer. If you want to make a lot of calls, you likely have an automated dialing system with specific hardware and software designed to [place calls] at scale, then connect to the telephone network through a service that provides Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) connectivity like an SIP gateway.

What are modern robocall trends?

Today, there are more and more scams. The cost of doing a call has gone down to near zero, and it's now possible to [robocall] from offshore, so it's open season for scammers.

How big is the industry?

The application-to-person messaging market is $6 billion and growing at 15% per year.

How did you figure out the volume of robocalls placed each year?

Here's how we do it, at a high-level:

  • We have a base of 8 million registered users for whom YouMail has replaced their voicemail. That base has [received] calls from 125 million numbers in the past year.
  • We have algorithms that detect call patterns of problem numbers, tons of input from our users in terms of which calls they believe are robocalls or spam, and we have data from various sources like the FCC and FTC on what numbers users are complaining about.
  • Right now, we do that on a monthly basis, then add up the estimates of the last 12 months to get an estimate for the whole year.

As long as our base is reasonably representative of the country, our estimates should be solid.

How does your technology work?

[Our] platform replaces voicemail service with an intelligent call manager, designed to help people handle various types of calls. When you don't answer a call, it gets routed to us instead of your carrier's voicemail service. Our mechanism for stopping robocalls is straightforward. When the call hits our platform looks up the number to decide if it's a "bad guy." If it is, we play the "this number is out service" message," the SIT tones that tell dialers this number is not active.

What then happens is the auto-dialer puts your number on a list of inactive numbers. Since many robocallers call from many different numbers, this has the effect of making it so you won't get calls from any of the numbers they use. For example, a debt collector may [place calls from] 100 numbers. They call you from one, they think you're out of service, and then they won't call you from the other [numbers].

Scam robocallers are getting more and more sneaky. For example, they would do all their calls from one number. Then they moved to a list of numbers. Then they moved to calling people from a number in their local area code, since they figure people are most likely to answer those.

The key takeaway is that people can't trust caller ID anymore - it's too easy to fake. Robocallers supply their ID when they make the call, which means they can supply whatever they want. If a call comes in from an unknown number, you need to ignore it and let it roll to voicemail. Legitimate callers will leave a message, and you can call them back. The scammers tend not to do that.

Are there positive, non-spammy, non-political uses for robocalls?

Robocalls have a valid reason to exist: a daily call to remind someone of their medication, a reminder that you didn't pay your prepaid phone for the next month and need to make the payment, a reminder to bring your car into service. These are all things that many people actively like and want. So [robocalls are] going to continue to be made, as they can be complementary to texts and emails.

The telephony industry--from app and service providers like us, all the way up to carriers--have many people working to help get rid of the spam callers. It's likely to shake out like email spam: for awhile everyone was overwhelmed and over time it's reduced to a minor annoyance.

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Even in this busy election cycle, campaigns are far from the most prodigious spam call offenders. According to YouMail the top telemarketing numbers are almost exclusively collection agencies and belong to credit card companies and banks, healthcare solicitors, and student loan collectors.

Consumers do have some recourse. It's easy to report SMS from unknown senders as spam. To understand your rights, first read the FCC's rules about unsolicited calls from campaigns, marketers, and solicitors. Then visit the national Do Not Call list to file a complaint and to add your number to the registry. After 31 days, you should see a significant reduction in telemarketing calls.

TechRepublic Math Geek Phone Number Trick:

  • Fire up your phone's calculator app, or a grab piece of paper and pencil.
  • Type in the first three digits of your seven-digit phone number.
  • Multiply this number by 80.
  • Now add 1.
  • Multiply this number by 250.
  • Then add the last 4 digits of your seven-digit phone number.
  • Add the last 4 digits of your seven-digit phone number again.
  • Subtract 250.
  • Divide this number by 2.
  • Bingo! The result should be your current phone number.

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