Robocalls may have met their match in the pandemic.
The number of scam calls to phone lines in the United States dropped by half at the start of the pandemic, as lockdowns closed the call centers necessary to robocall enterprises and reduced the number of phone lines with a person on the other end.
Robocalls, auto-dialed calls that usually come with a recorded message that attempt to cheat victims, started coming back after the initial decline. Then Covid-19 walloped India and calls fell almost 20 percent from March to May, as the disease surged and prompted states and cities to institute a new wave of lockdowns.
Alex Quilici, CEO of the voicemail provider and scam-blocking app YouMail, said the lockdowns have had the side effect of preventing people who work at call centers from going in to those call centers.
“They couldn't leave their homes, so they couldn't do the scams,” Quilici said. “No point of making a robocall if no one's there when you press 1.”
India, along with Pakistan and the Dominican Republic, are among the main origin points for illegal robocalls involving Social Security, debt collection and bogus utilities, said Josh Bercu, vice president of policy and advocacy at USTelecom, the association that organizes the industry’s robocall tracing efforts. “Those types of pure fraud almost always are coming from overseas,” Bercu said.
Scam calls peaked in October 2019, when an estimated 5.7 billion scam calls reached consumers, according to data from YouMail. Quilici said that while a series of enforcement actions from the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice brought the total down some in late 2019 and early 2020, they absolutely bottomed out in April and May 2020, falling by nearly half.
“The weeks that India and Pakistan shut down, we saw robocalls fall off a cliff,” Quilici said of the 2020 shutdowns.
The number of calls have crawled back up since then, reaching a pandemic-era high of 4.9 million calls in the U.S. in March before falling again. But the types of scams have evolved as well. In May, YouMail warned that Americans were getting up to 150 million calls a month from scammers pretending to be from Amazon.
Marriott filed a lawsuit against 10 unknown robocall operators in May, claiming they made more than a half-million calls to residents in Virginia from October 2020 to March. In the filing, Marriott alleged the scammers tried to swindle people with bogus complementary stays at Marriott hotels, leading to what the company called an “exponential increase” in complaints from customers.
Federal officials have worked to combat the rise in robocalls with actions aimed at carriers that service the scam-call industry and make it easy for the scam callers to stay hidden.
The DOJ won an injunction in March 2020 against two internet telephone providers who allegedly transmitted hundreds of millions of calls to consumers. And the FCC has prioritized the fight against robocalls, with the agency sending out cease-and-desist letters to carriers that facilitate scam calls, setting a June 30 deadline for carriers to implement STIR/SHAKEN, a call-verification system that will make it harder for scammers to hide their numbers, and requiring carriers to publish their robocall prevention strategies in a public database.
FCC officials told NBC News that the agency plans to continue the cease-and-desist efforts. While the agency can’t target overseas scammers directly, they can focus on the carriers that pass the scam calls on to Americans. The FCC has taken action against 11 carriers in the previous 12 months, threatening to direct other providers to stop working with them unless they stop transmitting scam calls and provide a plan for preventing future calls.
Tracking down the carriers that transmit the calls is getting easier, as officials say advances made by carriers and telecom industry groups have sped up the time it takes to trace a scam call’s chain of transmission. In some cases a slate of calls can be traced in a matter of minutes.
“The FCC needs to use every tool we have to get these junk calls off our networks,” FCC acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement to NBC News. “From a steady stream of cease-and-desist letters to STIR/SHAKEN implementation to large fines and our robocall mitigation database, we are going to do everything we can to protect consumers from these nuisance calls. We’re not going to stop until we get illegal robocallers, spoofers, and scammers off the line.”