March 17, 2021 was a milestone in the war on illegal robocalls. The FCC levied a $225 million fine — the largest in its history — on a telemarketer for making 1 billion illegal robocalls. On the same day, the FCC launched its Robocall Response Team, whose 51 staffers will step up enforcement and develop policies to help track down illegal robocallers. And finally, the FCC issued cease-and-desist letters to six voice service providers for allowing their networks to pass illegal robocalls.
That’s welcome news for businesses because illegal robocalls directly affect their bottom lines and brands in a variety of ways — including ones that aren’t obvious.
For example, consumers are inundated with so many illegal robocalls that when they see a call from an unfamiliar or unidentified number, they let it drop into voice mail 76 percent of the time. As a result, millions of legitimate, often time-sensitive business calls — such as appointment reminders, callbacks for customer inquiries and automated calls about school closures — go unanswered simply because consumers have been conditioned to view unfamiliar / unidentified numbers as spam.
The relentless deluge of illegal robocalls also fills up their voicemail, meaning they’ll never get to listen to messages from legitimate businesses. Some consumers never get around to setting up their voicemail, thus making it a black hole for those legitimate calls.
Schools, banks, hospitals, retailers and other organizations pay the price — literally. For example, their employees now have to make multiple follow-up calls to people who don’t answer or call back. To support all those additional interactions, they might need to add staff, increasing their overhead costs. That additional overhead also cuts into the profitability of customers who require multiple follow-ups.
Their brand reputation also can take a hit, such as with complaints on social media: “They never got back to me, so I took my business elsewhere!” That’s also an example of how the robocall scourge can mean less revenue for legitimate businesses.
Illegal robocalls also are making it difficult for COVID-19 contact tracers to reach people who typically ignore calls from numbers they don’t recognize. This puts lives at risk and prolongs the pandemic because people who may have been infected don’t know, so they continue to spread the virus. Even before the pandemic, this distrust often meant a hospital couldn’t reach a patient’s family in a timely manner.
Legitimate businesses also are increasingly becoming collateral damage in the war on illegal robocallers. For example, many voice service providers use analytics engines to identify potential sources of illegal robocalls. If an analytics engine flags high volume of calls originating from a single source, a voice service provider may consider it spam and start blocking those calls — even though they may be legitimate, such as a business’ customer service center making outbound appointment-reminder calls.
Finally, some illegal robocalls enable fraud. One example is “wangiri,” where fraudsters call but hang up after the first ring. When victims see the number and call back, they don’t realize that it’s a premium telephone number that incurs steep toll charges. Although wangiri — which is Japanese for “one (ring) and cut” — initially targeted consumers, fraudsters are now increasingly calling businesses that offer an automated call-back feature.
Establishing trust to maximize call-answer rates
What can legitimate businesses do to protect their brands and bottom line? One way is by getting their calls authenticated. This minimizes the chance that they’ll be mistakenly blocked by the tools and processes that voice service providers are increasingly using to thwart illegal robocallers.
This authentication process uses a centralized, trustworthy, continually updated database, which gives voice service providers and analytics engines independently verified information about each telephone number and the business using it. This information helps voice service providers weed out illegal robocalls and other types of suspicious traffic. It also enables them to present verified caller ID information, including the business name, that their customers know they can trust. That’s key for increasing call-answer rates for numbers that consumers don’t have stored in their phone’s contact list.
Businesses — including their third-party contact center providers — register their telephone numbers, along with information about their company. Once verified, this information is shared with all participating voice service providers and their caller ID authentication and analytics engines. Application programming interfaces (API) enable businesses to upload their information and any subsequent updates in high volumes.
In the U.S., this leverages STIR/SHAKEN, which is short for Secure Telephone Identity Revisited (STIR) and Signature-based Handling of Asserted Information Using toKENs (SHAKEN). This FCC-mandated initiative provides a framework that voice service providers use to digitally sign each call that originates from their network. “STIR/SHAKEN digitally validates the handoff of phone calls passing through the complex web of networks, allowing the phone company of the consumer receiving the call to verify that a call is in fact from the number displayed on Caller ID,” the FCC says.
Although the U.S. was the first to implement STIR/SHAKEN, other countries are increasingly requiring it, such as Canada, or considering it, such as the U.K. This global trend highlights how STIR/SHAKEN concepts such as digital signatures will be increasingly important worldwide for mitigating illegal robocalls, including those involving voice traffic that is cross-border.