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“Branded Calls” Enable Legitimate Businesses to Reach Fraud-Weary Consumers


Presented By: CrmXchange

The original Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) was passed into law by Congress and signed into law by President George HW Bush in 1991. It has since been updated several times to more effectively deal with issues related to cellular communications. Despite the best intentions of government and private industry to keep them in check, scammers and robocallers have proliferated to unprecedented levels over the past three decades... which has caused significant negative consequences for consumers and companies alike.  

Several years ago, a Software Advice Local Presence Dialing Survey revealed that up to 84% of calls go unanswered by consumers. And that percentage has only gone up in the interim. According to a State of the Call report by Hiya, a leading call performance management cloud, 94% of unknown calls were not picked up by consumers in 2020. This has complicated matters for legitimate businesses trying to reach consumers during the coronavirus pandemic when nearly three quarters of companies have increased their use of voice.

“The primary cause of declining answer rates is that people increasingly do not trust unidentified calls,” said Hiya president Kush Parikh. “In a recent survey by Censuswise, 85% of respondents indicated that they think unknown calls might be fraud. And since many legitimate businesses make unidentified calls, these unidentified and unanswered calls result in negative impacts on overall business performance.”

Fraudulent calls can produce serious financial losses. The FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center revealed that total losses reported to it by victims of such scams increased from $1.4 billion in 2017 to $3.5 billion in 2019. A report by YouMail, a company that provides anti-robocall services, cited in USA Today, noted that robocalls did decline briefly in 2020 when the pandemic at least temporarily shut down some call centers. Nonetheless, the company says the estimated 45.9 billion robocalls to consumers in 2020 still was 50% more than in 2017.

Now, robocall volumes "appear to be resuming their journey back toward their pre-pandemic levels," said YouMail CEO Alex Quilici in the report. More than 4 billion robocalls targeted phones across the U.S. in January 2021, a 3.7% increase over December 2020. During January, robocalls averaged 129.5 million calls daily, according to YouMail's Robocall Index, or about 1,500 calls each second.

What does this mean for businesses which need to communicate with customers experiencing limited mobility? “More customers want to interact with businesses via phone if they are unable to visit a physical location or dealing with time-sensitive issues,” said Viki Zabala, Chief Marketing Officer and Product Officer for Little Rock, AR-based First Orion, which provides transparency in the call process with solutions like Branded Calling. “Demand for services like delivery and curbside pickup have increased drastically, and those services often rely on a phone call. But with scammers constantly changing their tactics and employing pandemic-related schemes to hook people, the market is ripe for mobile phone scams and missed authentic connections. A customer expecting a food delivery might answer an unknown number, thinking it is their driver, only to be confronted by a scammer promising to help them get vaccinated for a fee – or they may ignore the call. With an equal chance of taking a scam call or missing an important call, people are constantly weighing the risk each time their phone rings from an unknown number.”

Hiya’s Parikh agrees. “The problem has been made worse by the events of the past year. With remote work and contactless customer service, more businesses are relying on the voice channel to reach their customers. The Censuswise survey showed that nearly three quarters of businesses increased their use of voice in 2020 communication for both business professionals (sales, contact centers and customer service) and consumers, beating out email, text, video calls, and instant messaging. Since fraudsters follow the dollars, this increase in voice traffic means that businesses and consumers are increasingly targeted by phone scammers, which in turn further erodes trust in unidentified calls and degrades performance.”

With millions being vaccinated every day, there is growing hope that the pandemic is finally beginning to recede. Will such resolution make the situation better? James Garvert, SVP and GM, of Communications Solutions at Neustar, an information services and technology company and a leader in identity resolution, offers his perspective. “The pandemic gave fraudsters a vector to pursue consumers and take advantage of their concerns, such as testing, contact tracing and vaccines. This further undermined confidence in the voice channel, making it more difficult for those making legitimate calls. This is especially true when consumers don’t recognize the number calling them and there is no name coming up on their mobile device,” he said. “As to the future, the simplest statement is that it is not going to stop. The bad actors have found ways to make money from their activities and it will go on until further additional features such as STIR/ SHAKEN are integrated across the ecosystem. By providing tools to combat fraudulent activity, we hope to ultimately make it too costly for them to operate.”

What is STIR/SHAKEN? STIR (Secure Telephony Identity Revisited) is a set of technical standards developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) to certify the identity of originating calls and SHAKEN (Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using toKENs) is a framework developed by the Alliance of Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) that focuses on the implementation of STIR within IP-based service provider networks. This is major consumer protection priority of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which wants to ensure that self-verified, or so-called “signed” callers can identify themselves to consumers as such.

In 2018, the FCC directed carriers to implement robust call authentication by adopting STIR/SHAKEN standards and the major carriers have largely complied, although some smaller carriers are still playing catch-up. Congress and the FCC are mandating that all U.S. voice carriers implement STIR/SHAKEN call authentication in the IP portion of their networks by June 2021, along with robocall mitigation solutions.

Many consumers see the results in getting real-time notification that an incoming call is ‘likely a scam’. But some legitimate businesses (such as pharmacies attempting to send out prescription information or businesses calling their own customers) still have been erroneously identified as spam callers. This can be partly attributed to call analytics programs that only look at volume metrics and crowdsourcing to determine whether a call should be marked as spam or blocked. 

According to Garvert, fraudsters are already upping their game to get around preventative measures with more sophisticated voice scam strategies. These include ‘man in the middle’ attacks where they use fraudulently obtained data to harvest log-in information or ‘vishing”, a combination of voice and phishing where bad actors impersonate a caller from an enterprise company and attempt to get an unsuspecting user to give them private personal  and financial information which they use to do an account takeover.

“This is how phone fraud continues to evolve,” noted Garvert. “It calls to mind the term ‘whack-a-mole’ where you pound down one crisis only to have several others pop up. But the power of tools such as advanced analytic engines and STIR/SHAKEN will allow us to help stop some of these new threat vectors.”

The trust/identity/security/business connectivity companies interviewed here have done some evolving of their own.

“Neustar started more than two decades ago as part of Lockheed Martin, focusing on number portability and while that business spun off and grew, we began looking at what was next,” said Garvert. “It was taking the heritage of managing a large infrastructure that had a significant transaction volume and getting it into new and even more complex markets. Our transition has turned Neustar into a global information services company that both provides services into the carrier community and into very large brands and enterprises that now rely on the information that we’ve gained over the years to improve engagement with their customers, as well as securing those interactions.”

“Today, while we’ve moved beyond the portability business, we still manage billions of DNS queries and prevent attacks. We also provide routing information for billions of text messages on a global basis.  And on the caller identity side, we do billions of identity transactions every month to help better enable people to know who is calling and why.”

“First Orion was founded in 2008, with the same mission as today – to create a trusted phone connection,” said Zabala.  “We launched with a carrier-grade spam and scam protection solution helping to protect consumers from fraudulent and unwanted robocalls. Today, we offer this same protection - inside carrier networks, at the edge with APIs, and on mobile apps. Billions of calls later, our business still helps identify the important calls consumers don’t want to miss with branded phone calls displaying company name, logo, and a reason for the call. Our solutions are not just easy to implement, but also powered by data-driven technology, machine learning and AI, to ensure we provide peace of mind for both businesses and consumers.”

Hiya, which spun out of Whitepages, was founded in 2016. “We set out to add the critical layers of trust, identity and intelligence to the voice call,” said Parikh. “We launched Hiya Protect, which includes caller ID and spam blocking for mobile. We also brought our technology to market through Samsung Smart Call—which made it available on hundreds of millions of devices worldwide—and through the first-ever network-based spam solution with AT&T. Since then, Hiya has expanded to more than 150 million monthly active users across the globe and launched new products and features.”

In 2019, the company introduced Hiya Connect to help businesses get the most out of the voice channel, including such features as Secure Call that prevents imposters from spoofing a business phone number and authenticates all calls with a fraud filter that stops unverified calls,  as wells as reputation management and monitoring that enables businesses to stop inaccurate spam labeling and track reputation health.

But the most effective weapon in the quiver of all these companies is the branded call, which enables businesses to eliminate the “unknown caller” experience while enabling proper brand identification. “Companies are branding every marketing channel – social, billboards, online, tote bags – but phone calls historically have remained un-brandable,” said First Orion’s Zabala. “When businesses made calls, an unknown number rendered their brand completely anonymous – until now. With branded calling, businesses can brand that space with their identity - company name, logo, and a short message so their customers see exactly who’s calling them.”

Hiya’s Parikh analogizes branded calls to another channel. “We think of unidentified calls as emails with no subject line. Most of us wouldn’t trust an email with no subject, and now we’ve all grown to expect the subject line because it offers critical identifiers of the sender and content of the email,” he noted. “We believe the voice call should offer the same level of identity. By adding this level of identity to their outbound calls, businesses improve answer rates, distinguish their calls from competitors, serve customers faster, increase the quality of their conversations, and more.” 

Garvert stresses the importance of building trust to mobile communications. “When you talk about call authentication and engagement with the consumer, companies trying to reach existing and potential customers have 60% of their outbound calls going through to mobile devices, and the consumer typically does not have that business’s number in their contacts lists. That often sets up a poor user experience, since end users have been conditioned not to answer a phone number they don’t know. This has created a situation where upwards of 90% of business calls go unanswered, which in turn leads to frustration where people wished they had taken a legitimate call but were being cautious. The solution is to provide additional information and context. The number no longer needs to be in a consumer’s address file, but the information can be pushed to the consumer in a manner that creates more trust and transparency.”