By Michael O’Brien
Americans were inundated with more than 58 billion illegal robocalls in 2019, plus 4.5 billion spam text messages. Consumers are so fed up that when they see a call from an unfamiliar or unidentified number, they let it drop into voicemail 76 percent of the time.
Regulators and law enforcement are fighting back. For example, the FCC levied a record-setting 225 million dollars fine on Rising Eagle, a Texas-based telemarketer, for making over one billion spoofed robocalls in 2019. The same year, Iosif Florea received a thirty-two-month sentence in federal prison for an SMS phishing (“smishing”) scam that targeted nearly 500,000 people in Alabama. Florea’s messages appeared to come from the Alabama State Employees Credit Union (ASECU) and asked recipients to verify account information.
As voice service providers, regulators, analytics engines, vendors, and other members of the telecom ecosystem battle back against illegal robocallers and SMS fraudsters, legitimate contact centers find themselves caught in the crossfire. For example, many voice service providers use analytics engines, which look for high volumes of calls originating from one source, to provide guidance about call treatment. Another example is smartphone apps that screen calls. Sometimes these apps and engines mistakenly label calls from legitimate call centers as spam. Some industry stakeholders say that outbound call-answer rates plummeted 30 percent in 2019 because so many legitimate calls were mistakenly blocked.
Getting Legitimate Calls Through
There are times when getting the call is more critical than ever. Indiana is among a growing number of states and municipalities hiring call centers to assist with COVID-19 contact tracing. Many of those potentially life-saving outbound calls could wind up either blocked or automatically routed to voicemail, depending on the service provider’s policies. This is another reason why it’s essential to restore confidence so that intended recipients will answer their phones.
Customers who have full mailboxes, never set up their voicemail, or don’t check messages won’t hear those critical messages. Even if they check voicemail, it’s still a game of phone tag. As a result, contact center agents have multiple interactions with each of those customers. This increases overhead costs and requires additional staff. Every day, the same fate awaits countless outbound calls from contact centers serving state and local governments, insurance companies, travel and hospitality providers, and other organizations.
COVID-19 contact tracing also is an example of how fraudsters find opportunities to use smishing. “Scammers, pretending to be contact tracers and taking advantage of how the process works, are also sending text messages,” the Federal Trade Commission recently warned. “Theirs are spam text messages that ask you to click a link. Clicking on the link will download software onto your device, giving scammers access to your personal and financial information.”
The smishing scourge conditions consumers to be highly skeptical about text messages from unfamiliar numbers. Now, just like with illegal robocalls, contact centers must spend more time sending follow-up text messages, again driving up costs.
Weeding Out Fraudsters and Spam
Voice service providers, analytics engines, and enterprises understand that anti-spam mechanisms must be intelligent enough to distinguish between legitimate, trustworthy calls and text messages from those sent by illegal robocallers and fraudsters. To achieve this goal, industry organizations such as the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) and the GSM Association (GSMA) are collaborating to create frameworks that voice service providers, contact centers, messaging partners or aggregators, and service platforms such as communications platform as a service (CPaaS) and unified communications as a service (UCaaS) can quickly and widely implement, regardless of network type or technology.
For example, Validating INtegrity of End-to-End Signaling (VINES) is a new GSMA Working Group developing solutions to prevent internet work signaling fraud, which includes illegal robocalls, spoofing, toll bypass, and consumer fraud. Service providers and standards bodies worldwide can use VINES solutions to restore consumer trust in communications, combat billions of dollars annually in service provider fraud, and help protect their customers from fraud via spoofed numbers. The VINES working group will also help service providers ensure that legitimate international business calls aren’t mistakenly flagged as spam.
Another example is the GSMA’s RCS Verified Sender initiative, which is an industry effort to ensure that the new Rich Communication Service (RCS) avoids the spoofing and other fraud types that afflict SMS. A key component is an independent Verification Authority (VA) that would be responsible for authenticating the identity of businesses and their chatbots.
Google is also helping protect Android users. Verified SMS adds sender verification and business branding to text messages. Verified Calls displays the business’ name, logo, reason for calling, and “a verification symbol indicating the business has been authenticated by Google.”
A Centralized Industry Database of Trusted Numbers
A centralized database would give voice service providers and analytics engines independently verified information about each phone number and the company using it. Additionally, a unified registration platform for brands will avoid fragmentation and confusion. The authenticated data would enable service providers and their vendor partners to treat each call and text message properly and present caller information their customers know they can trust.
Here’s how a verifiable database could work:
- Call centers—internal and third-party providers—register their telephone numbers, along with information about their company or their clients.
- Once verified, this information is shared with all participating service providers, analytics engines, and robocall-mitigation companies. This centralized architecture saves contact centers significant amounts of time and money because they don’t have to provide their information to different voice service providers that are managing each telephone number.
- Service providers could combine this trusted data with their existing call analytics and other tools to further ensure that only legitimate calls, text messages, and chatbots are reaching their customers.
- Application programming interfaces (API) would make it fast and easy for contact centers to upload their information and subsequent updates in high volumes.
This database also could be used to authenticate text messages and RCS data. For example, legitimate contact centers would register their SMS short codes and RCS chatbots in a centralized, omni-channel database.
Another key business benefit for contact centers is more efficient staffing. Higher contact rates mean that agents spend less time repeatedly calling or texting people who don’t answer or text back when they see an unfamiliar phone number.
This efficiency is particularly valuable for outsourced contact centers with tight margins. Third-party contact centers can add value to their clients and create a differentiator by registering their clients’ telephone numbers, chatbots, and SMS messages in the centralized database and potentially help increase their clients’ answer rates.
Maximize Trust to Maximize Consumer Responsiveness
Voice calls and text messages are the most effective ways for enterprises, government agencies, and other organizations to reach consumers with essential information such as appointment reminders, financial transaction alerts, school closures, and public safety alerts. A centralized database is critical for maintaining and maximizing that effectiveness.
This gives service providers and contact centers a streamlined, authoritative way to exchange verified information that gives consumers confidence in the information when they receive a call or text or interact with a chatbot. In the process, contact centers—both internal and outsourced—enterprises and consumers benefit. This is a future where everyone comes out ahead.
Michael O’Brien is chief product officer at iconectiv. He is responsible for executing on the company’s strategy and driving new pathways of sustainable growth for the company. An experienced industry veteran, O’Brien has more than thirty years of experience in the mobile communications industry.