Over the last year, regulators and legislators put robocalls increasingly in their crosshairs. As service providers implemented more consumer protections, it appears there’s been some progress in the fight to reduce the influx of unwanted robocalls that most Americans are all too familiar with.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic some robocallers changed tactics, with a rise in scams that preyed on public health fears. Verizon itself identified almost 40 new COVID-19 scams since March, according to a statement by Ronan Dunne, chief executive of Verizon Consumer Group.
Still, over the last three months Verizon saw unwanted calls decline by more than 30% as a result of the carrier’s ongoing efforts including its Call Filter app, alongside disruption from the pandemic.
“In addition to improving the tools our customers can use to protect themselves via services like Call Filter, Verizon is actively working to help government enforcement agencies root out the bad actors by initiating tracebacks of illegal robocall campaigns,” Dunne’s statement continued. “Our ongoing efforts have helped contribute to seven consecutive months of decline in unwanted robocalls calls, and we continue to make significant progress on behalf of our customers.”
The industry overall has seen a drop in monthly spam calls for the past seven months, according to Verizon’s robocall analytics partner Transaction Network Services (TNS).
Unwanted robocalls are the FCC’s top category for informal consumer complaints. A new FCC report (PDF) issued Thursday showed that the number of robocall complaints filed with the FTC were down 68% in April year over year, and down 60% in May versus May 2019.
A drop-off in robocalls since the pandemic started can also be seen in third-party trackers. The YouMail Robocall Index estimates roughly 2.9 billion robocalls were placed in each April and May 2020, compared to monthly totals ranging from roughly 4 billion to 5.6 billion for each of the 15 months prior. So far in 2020, the company estimates about 19.5 billion robocalls have been placed in the U.S. nationwide. For the full year 2019, YouMail said 58.5 billion robocalls were made, with 47.8 billion in 2018 and 30.5 billion in 2017.
Verizon on Thursday also said it’s made “significant progress” on its STIR/SHAKEN deployment. STIR/SHAKEN is a caller ID authentication technology that helps ensure a call is actually coming from the number that shows up and isn’t spoofed. Earlier this year the FCC required voice service providers to start implementing the technology, consistent with the anti-robocall TRACED Act passed by Congress and signed into law at the end of 2019.
“Verizon is currently verifying billions of calls every month within our network and has sent three billion STIR/SHAKEN calls to other carriers,” Verizon stated in its announcement.
In February, ahead of their now completed merger, T-Mobile and Sprint were delivering STIR/SKAEN number-verification across their networks. T-Mobile and AT&T performed similar cross-network authentication last year.
Robocall-blocking tools widely available
The FCC report says call blocking tools are now widely available to consumers at no or low cost, including from all major wireless carriers.
For the largest carriers, tools include Verizon’s Call Filter app, AT&T offers Call Protect, T-Mobile has Scam ID and Scam Block, and Sprint offers its Call Screener for all wireless customers
AT&T’s tools have blocked or labeled nearly 1.3 billion fraudulent calls, as well as 3 billion other calls since 2016, according to the report.
Verizon said its free Call Filter app has detected over 5 billion spam and robocalls since launching in 2019 and that more than 75 million consumer, business, and prepaid lines now have it. Verizon also has network-level default blocking that has blocked millions of calls without a valid or assigned number.
T-Mobile’s network-based call blocking tools identified more than 21 billion scam calls and blocked 5 billion of those since launching in 2017.
“Tools are available today to help consumers block robocalls, spoofed calls, scam calls, telemarketers, and other unwanted calls,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a statement. “I am glad to see that this analysis shows that many call blocking tools are available today for free or at little cost to consumers. We will continue to prioritize the protection of consumers from scams and unwanted robocalls.”
The report, based on data submitted by commenters, also found there were few times where a potentially wanted call was blocked by mistake.
To that end, at its meeting next month, the FCC will consider adopting an order that would protect service providers from liability under the Communications Act for blocking calls. The agency already authorized voice providers to automatically block robocalls, without needing customers to opt-in. However, there was hesitation among some to do so without liability protections, if for example, legitimate calls were inadvertently blocked. AT&T was the first carrier to start blocking robocalls by default last July.
The order up for vote on July 16 would “establish a safe harbor from liability” for carriers that block calls based on “reasonable analytics designed to identify unwanted calls” as long as they also take into account STIR/SHAKEN information.