While US consumers received 77 billion unwanted calls in 2020, this figure represented a 28% drop from the prior year, suggesting that collective efforts by policymakers, regulators, carriers and industry are driving down robocall volume. In 2020, bad actors set their sights on the COVID-19 pandemic and the US Presidential Election, launching targeted scams and misinformation campaigns. Americans were inundated with 8.25 million robocalls on Election Day alone — according to the Transaction Network Services (TNS) 2021 Robocall Investigation Report released today.

The 2021 Robocall Investigation Report, now in its sixth edition, is a bi-annual update of key robocall trends drawing from more than one billion daily call events across hundreds of carriers. The current report looks at full-year 2020 data trends for two types of negative robocalls: high-risk robocalls (scam/fraudulent calls which attempt to acquire call recipient personal information and/or money) and nuisance robocalls (which are not of malicious intent or negligent non-compliance).

“2020 was a year where overall volume declined but external factors transformed the nature of robocall campaigns launched by bad actors to create fear and confusion surrounding COVID-19 and the US Election cycle,” said Bill Versen, President of TNS’ Communications Market business. “Restoring trust in voice calling requires that telecom stakeholders continue to take proactive and coordinated steps to protect subscribers. As the TNS study affirms, the stakes remain as high as ever.”

Despite the staggering 77 billion unwanted calls made last year, TNS saw a decrease in both unwanted and wanted calls starting in mid-March 2020, in part due to carriers effectively blocking more calls and the COVID-19 pandemic sidelining global call centers responsible for so many major calling campaigns. Key findings from the 2021 Robocall Investigation Report:

  • Leading US Tier-1 Carriers Remain a Small Part of Robocall Problem. Total calls (wanted and unwanted) by the Tier-1 carriers account for 67% of the total volume, yet nearly 95% of high-risk calls originated from numbers not owned by Tier-1 carriers last year, up three percentage points from 2019. Implementation of STIR/SHAKEN and subscriber use of call filtering apps has likely resulted in the small percentage of high-risk robocalls in Tier-1 networks.
  • Broader Tier-1 Adoption Of STIR/SHAKEN Contributed to Reduced Robocalls. Efforts by the leading carriers to deploy STIR/SHAKEN, the authentication framework essential to combatting spoofing mandated by the FCC, had a positive impact: More than one-third of the total calls traversing carrier networks in December 2020 were self-signed by a voice service provider ensuring the caller is verified, up from 21% in January 2020. TNS data also notes a decrease in the most common type of neighbor spoofing (use of the same area code and several digits of the subscriber’s phone number) as a result of these efforts.
  • Share of Unwanted Calls to Wireline Numbers Double that of Wireless. While much of the attention goes towards robocalls to mobile phones, TNS finds that 37% of calls placed to wireline numbers in 2020 were unwanted, compared to 17% of calls to wireless numbers.
  • Spoofing of Legitimate Enterprise and Government Toll-Free Numbers Continued to Climb. Toll-free originated calls accounted for more than one-third (35%) of the high-risk call volume in 2020, up from 28% in the second half of 2019.
  • The 2020 US Election Cycle Fueled a Spike in Misinformation Campaigns. Political calls accounted for approximately 10% of the total unwanted call volume from July to October, helping to explain why 54% of Americans believed robocalls and robotexts were used to undermine confidence in the 2020 US election. In fact, 12 key battleground states (AZ, CO, FL, GA, MI, MN, NV, NH, NC, OH, PA, WI) received 39% of all political robocalls on Election Day and the day prior.

Versen adds: “Where should the focus be for 2021? Only 11% of consumers TNS surveyed last year would answer calls from unmarked phone numbers. The focus in 2021 should be to present more contextual information on a subscriber’s incoming call screen (organization name, logo, reason for calling) and to ensure unwanted calls are blocked. These efforts will go a long way to restoring trust in voice calling and making sure important calls get answered.”

Click here for a full copy of the 2021 TNS Robocall Investigation Report, Sixth Edition.