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What’s the true state of affairs with robocalling?

Automation has come to characterize the 4th industrial revolution. With that said, seldom can there have been a more unwanted form of automation than the computerized auto-dialers that deliver pre recorded messages to people around the world. 

Robocalls are nearly always marketing related, trying to push the latest products, services, and even political candidates, with the robotic, one-sided nature of the message hugely annoying for the recipient.

The anger caused by robocalls has resulted in numerous attempts by countries to stop them, including do not call lists and the release of various products designed to allow us to block robocalls. None of the methods have been wholly reliable, however. 

New research from North Carolina State University suggests that at least the number of robocalls is not going up.

The researchers set out to explore some of the “myths” that have emerged around robocalls, such as that their volume is on the rise, and that answering a robocall will open you up to a deluge of further calls. They wanted to truly understand the nature of the market so that they could more effectively work towards reducing the number of robocalls, if not eliminating them entirely.

Fear of answering the phone

The rise in robocalls has led to many people becoming heavily reluctant to answer their phones, especially if the calls are originating from an unknown number. This is particularly problematic during COVID-19 as the ability to contact people is fundamental to the work being done by contact tracers around the world.

The researchers partnered with a communications firm to establish over 66,000 phone lines that would be used solely to look out for robocalls, which they define as either automated or semi-automated phone calls that play a recorded message. The lines were monitored for 11 months to try and gain a realistic insight into robocalls themselves, and the campaigns that sit behind them.

In total, the phone lines received nearly 1.5 million unsolicited calls during the study period, with an automated system used to randomly answer around 146,000 of those calls. 

The system was also set up to both record the calls and analyze the messages.

So what did the analysis reveal? Firstly, there was no real change in the volume of robocalls made during the study period, leading the researchers to conclude that it was not a plague that was either increasing or decreasing in volume. What’s more, answering the robocalls didn’t seem to influence the future volume received by any particular phone line. So while the standard government advice is to not engage with robocalls when possible, doing so doesn’t seem to expose you to a greater barrage of calls in the future.

An unlucky few

One legend did appear to be true, however. The researchers wanted to test whether certain lines would receive a disproportionate volume of calls, with some deluged sufficiently to warrant the line unusable. 

The data clearly shows that while this unfortunate fate is not common, it does indeed occur. It appears that this barrage of calls transpires when the robocaller identifies itself via a seemingly fake phone number that actually belongs to someone. Then the robocaller will make hundreds of thousands of calls using this poor person’s number, resulting in many ‘missed calls’ appearing that people attempt to call back, which ultimately renders the poor soul’s phone unusable.

Fortunately, this plight is generally only temporary in nature, as robocallers tend to change their phone number every couple of days, thus returning that individual to normality again after a short while.

Arguably the most interesting finding from the research came when the content of the calls was analyzed. 

A surprisingly high 62% of calls actually contained absolutely no audio at all, with less than half of the remainder containing a sufficient amount of audio to enable the researchers to analyze it.

Of this relatively small sample, a significant number were identical (or nearly identical), which allowed the researchers to group the calls into clusters that were identified with specific campaigns. This is crucial, as currently, calls have to be traced back manually through service providers, which takes an incredibly long time. 

By eliminating all of the silent calls, the researchers were able to identify 2,687 specific campaigns, within which the majority only made a few calls. A handful, however, made thousands of calls each, which allowed the researchers to hone in on a much more manageable number of severe offenders.

It presents a way forward for officials as they strive to make more meaningful progress in the battle against robocallers, but of course, it does little to accurately identify the large number of blank calls that are equally annoying for victims. It’s clearly a battle that will be ongoing but is nonetheless a sign of the progress that is being made.

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