Robocalls Decreased During COVID, What Else to Expect

Robocalls Decreased During COVID, What Else to Expect

September 16th, 2020 - Telecom, Identity and Protection

By Bill Versen, Chief Product Officer at Transaction Network Services

The coronavirus pandemic has not spared any business or industry from disruption, and that includes the disruption of large scale robocall scam operations.

The COVID-19 stay-at-home mandate has sidelined both bad actors and legitimate call originator campaigns, with a 15% drop in unwanted calls in the first half of 2020, compared to the same period the prior year, according to TNS’ bi-annual Robocall Investigation Report.

But how much of this trend will be permanent remains to be seen. Data from our bi-annual report reveal compelling storylines on the state of robocalls in the US today – suggesting a pivotal crossroads on whether the tide has turned permanently against bad actors or if this respite ends up being short lived.

Robocallers have rapidly adapted to pandemic scams

Scams targeting stimulus checks, fake test kits and cures, PPE, health insurance, and student loans are just a few attempts to separate consumers from their personal information and money. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported 126,902 COVID-19 fraud incidents in the first half of the year, amounting to about $70M in losses.

Pandemic highlights risks of blocking legitimate calls

The need for a more surgical approach to blocking calls has become even more apparent during the pandemic: multiple state health agencies have made public pleas to answer their calls that are part of essential contact-tracing efforts. It is for this reason we see leading wireless carriers working with state health agencies to roll out ‘Branded Calling’ initiatives that display the logo and information on the screen of an incoming call to improve answer rates for COVID-19 test results and contact-tracing calls.

Bad Actors pivoting to toll-free numbers

Fraud has become easier as technologies like voice-over internet protocol (VoIP) calling have empowered criminals with both number spoofing capabilities and low cost robo-dialing. While VoIP remains a key conduit for nuisance calls, data suggest that bad actors are simultaneously continuing to shift calling from toll-free numbers. Unwanted and high-risk calls representing toll-free numbers jumped from 26% to 32% over the past year. Going back to 2018, when this figure was only 12%, we can see how this tactic has become a favorite among scammers tapping enterprise and government entity toll-free numbers to place high-risk calls. The move away from VoIP also reflects broader implementation of STIR/SHAKEN framework by a number of major telecom carriers.

The Presidential election is coming… and so are political robocalls

The pandemic wreaked havoc in 2020 with state primaries, many of which were postponed and altered in a way that gave bad actors the opportunity to seed confusion among voters. When compared to a typical week, TNS found that almost every state saw a rise in robocall activity of between 150% and 600% the week leading up to their primary voting date. Not surprisingly, the data suggest political robocalls will spike again as we approach the November 2020 Presidential election, not only from those seeking to impact voter turnout but also from those attempting to con voters into giving money to scammers that aren’t affiliated with legitimate campaign and fundraising efforts.

Scammers aren’t just targeting wireless devices

So much of the conversation around robocalls focuses on mobile devices, but our report finds that 40% of the total calls to wireline telephone numbers are unwanted compared to 20% for wireless telephone numbers. Overall, the total number of unwanted calls to wireline numbers has remained stable while the number of unwanted calls for wireless numbers decreased significantly.

Why are robocalls to wireline numbers 2x greater than volume to wireless devices? Bad actors and nuisance callers could be adapting to greater enforcement on the wireless side, as well as broader adoption of smartphone robocall blocking and detection apps. It’s also worth noting that landline phone users tend to skew toward older users, suggesting additional preferences for scams targeting elderly populations – particularly during the pandemic when health concerns are top of mind.

If we’ve learned anything in examining robocaller data and trends it is that bad actors will continue to adapt, and some factors leading to the drop in unwanted calls are not permanent ones. Robocall data for the past year tells a story of opportunity for policymakers, regulators, carriers and industry to use a period of time where scammer operations have been disrupted by the pandemic to continue to evaluate and execute their strategies.

Bill Versen is TNS’ Chief Product Officer. In this far-reaching role, Bill is responsible for overseeing the vision, strategy, development, management, and marketing of all TNS’ products and services globally.

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