Next Caller Fraud & COVID-19 Report (Weeks 6-9)

A Flattening of the Call Curve Signals a Calm Before The Next Stimulus Wave

March 16 – May 11: The First 9 Weeks in Review

After 9 weeks of monitoring client call traffic data and industry trends related to contact center activity during COVID-19, this report adds new insights from Week 6 through Week 9 (April 20 – May 11) to discuss what’s happened thus far, suggest a few potential reasons that may explain why, and offer practical suggestions to help contact centers prepare for the future.

Weeks 6-9 brought some welcomed good news: overall call volume dropped significantly from the all-time highs observed in Week 5. While some clients still saw volume surges of above 40% over the 4-week stretch from Week 6-9, industry-wide levels dropped to near, and sometimes below, pre-COVID levels. Somewhat surprisingly, the much-needed relief applied to high-risk call traffic as well, which reported their lowest levels since the beginning of COVID-19.

But why? To find answers, we began with a simple theory: with financial concerns at an all-time high, early call traffic spikes would be correlated to significant, official public stimulus-related communication and/or events and the periods between would see lower call volumes. We also posited that this correlation would continue indefinitely given the scope of the pandemic. In short, call traffic (from consumers and fraudsters) would come in waves.

The following graphs plot Next Caller client call traffic through the lens of prominent developments related to the CARES and PPP stimulus packages. What we found was compelling: From Week 1 forward, consumer call behavior indeed tracked extremely close with major developments. Similarly, high-risk calls shadowed the event calendar, with a tendency for spikes starting sooner and lasting longer than calls from consumers.

ALL CLIENT & HIGH RISK CALL TRAFFIC WITH C.A.R.E.S.-RELATED STIMULUS EVENTS

NOTABLE CORRELATIONS

While the events listed above (and other events not included) almost certainly contributed to the fluctuations observed through Next Caller client traffic, the correlations discussed in this section are purely speculative.

  • Week 1: With all 50 states having declared a state of emergency and the federal government recommending social distancing, March 16th marked the beginning of an increase in call volume from consumers, many anxious to get personal affairs in order as well as fraudsters capitalizing on confusion.
  • Week 2: Consumer calls waned, high-risk calls did not. Fraud trends were corroborated by the issuance of warnings from multiple government agencies about an increase in COVID-19 relate scams.
  • Week 3: With the announcement of stimulus packages offering financial support to millions, consumer calls spiked dramatically. The spike also coincided with over 6.6 million new unemployment claims, the most over one week in history. Presumably, consumers were now calling not just to cancel plans, order supplies, or delay bills, but to secure aid to support their families without a job.
  • Week 4: In the lull of pending legislation, with most Americans under stay-at-home orders, and having had several weeks to manage or monitor personal affairs, all call activity dipped significantly.
  • Week 5: On April 11, government officials announced that personal stimulus checks had begun being deposited. Numerous online and mobile app outages for many major financial institutions and government agencies encouraged a rush to the phone as over 80 million Americans simultaneously attempted to track the status of their CARES Act deposits.
  • Weeks 6-9: Following delivery of most stimulus checks, Americans may have turned their attention away from calling businesses. While Week showed a blip, traffic remained relatively low with the exception of Week 9, where announcements of certain state re-openings may have prompted a flurry of new consumer activity for fraudsters to exploit.

CONSUMER SPOTLIGHT

While the volume of calls from individuals to U.S. businesses has shown a clear ebb and flow throughout the pandemic, consumer impact and anxiety has continued to increase. In our ‘Week 4 and 5’ report, 32% of Americans surveyed thought they had been targeted by COVID-19 related fraud. By Week 8, new results show an increase of 5 percentage points to 37%.

Even more troubling, 4 in 5 (80%) reported that even if they have avoided health or financial hardship thus far, they worry that they will experience it in the future.*

While avoiding health or financial loss from COVID-19 may well beyond our control, taking proactive steps to protect your information can make a world of difference. Recently, The New York Times published A Guide to Pandemic Scams, and What Not to Fall For that serves as an extremely helpful guide. The distraction during a pandemic is a perfect storm for fraudsters and now is the worst time to fall victim. It is more important than ever to increase awareness of fraud schemes and the tactics that enable them to succeed.

*To supplement our own institutional knowledge and internal data, Next Caller commissioned a study administered to over 1,000 U.S. respondents aged 18+, balanced against the U.S. population by age, gender, and region. Survey conducted between May 8, 2020 and May 9, 2020.

LENDER-SPECIFIC CALL TRAFFIC WITH P.P.P.-RELATED STIMULUS EVENTS

NOTABLE CORRELATIONS

While the events listed above (and other events not included) almost certainly contributed to the fluctuations observed through Next Caller client traffic, the correlations discussed in this section are purely speculative.

  • Week 3: With the announcement of the PPP stimulus packages offering financial support to millions, businesses, calls to financial institutions supporting PPP loans began to increase significantly.
  • Week 4 & 5: On Friday, April 3rd, businesses could begin submitting applications for PPP loans. Many lenders suffered immediate outages as websites crashed under the volume of submissions. By Monday, April 6, reports were already circulating that the PPP funds were in danger of running out. The flurry of calls over the next several weeks, presumably to check the status of or inquire about PPP loans, peaked by April 13th, just 3 days before the official announcement that the fund was indeed depleeted.
  • Weeks 6-9: The significant drop in volume during Week 6 may have signaled widespread abandonment of the loan application process, but was followed by another slight rise later that week, perhaps attributable to news of additional funds becoming available and the ensuing race to secure funds.

LOOKING FORWARD

Next Caller will continue to monitor call trends during COVID-19, but there are some immediate conclusions to draw following the first 9 weeks:

  • While calls from consumers may be trending down of late, the relief is likely to last only as long as the gap between new stimulus announcements. As of May 15th, the House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act, a record $3T stimulus package offering scores of new avenues for aid. However, even if the bill does not become law, few question wether another package is on the way at some point. In addition, as more individuals and businesses face the reality of prolonged financial hardship, other less obvious issues lie in wait that will certainly require more phone communication, like loan or mortgage defaults, bankruptcies, and life changes resulting from health issues. Waves of calls similar to those seen during the first 5 weeks are likely to repeat (and repeat again) as a result.
  • Spikes in high-risk calls not only mirror consumer calling behavior, they often anticipate it. High-risk calls can also increase unpredictably even when general call traffic slows. Continued disruption from COVID-19 will only increase the opportunities for fraud. To compound the problem, consumers will need to engage more with businesses to clean up the mess left in the fraud wake, further elevating traffic. In short, it’s likely that the highest call surges are yet to come.

STAYING AHEAD OF THE NEXT WAVE

NOW IS THE TIME TO ACT

The good news is that, at least for the moment, the lull in call volume means there is newfound time to address the crisis before volumes spike again. Rather than licking wounds, it’s time to start responding. The bottom line is on the line.

In the first few weeks of COVID-19, consumers were likely to forgive significant inconveniences like long hold times and shifting policies. Our forthcoming report next week will show that consumers are losing patience. Here’s now to act now:

  • Start collecting and analyzing  data. Call traffic patterns and caller behavior can quickly identify problems and new opportunities for efficiency. It’s time to become intimately familiar with which metrics you are currently tracking and develop a plan to start tracking new ones.
  • Be predictive. Circumstances have changed for everyone and they will continue to evolve. Typical caller behavior at large and on an individual basis is no longer reliable, yet anticipating why someone is calling is a crucial step to increasing self-service and ensuring a good experience. Informing customers of outages, changes, updates, or self-service opportunities early in the call process can translate to big savings and much needed customer goodwill.
  • Start Budgeting. Plans for 2020 went out the window in March. It’s time to adapt. Reprioritizing ways to manage increased calls from consumers while also protecting the security of your contact center should be paramount. Digital channels often receive the most budget attention, but in times of extreme stress and disruption, consumers prefer human interaction over the phone. If the call process is excruciating, it will be on full display.
  • ANI Match. Particularly over the phone, less is more. If you can safely match an incoming phone number to a customer account (ANI Match), you avoid delays caused by less secure authentication methods like knowledge-based questions and one-time passcodes. It also translates into a more seamless experience that already-anxious callers will appreciate. ANI Matching is easy to implement, but does require the ability to detect criminal techniques like call spoofing. ANI Validation is a fast and easy way to secure ANI matching.
  • Ensure proper agent staffing, training, and equipment. With record unemployment levels and new work from home schedules, calls may not only increase–they will start coming at all hours of the day. Agents should also be up to speed on the latest policies and procedures. Fraudsters take advantage of confusion. Underprepared and overwhelmed agents are a liability that no one can afford. Speaking of which, do your agents normally use multiple programs at once? Consider investing in equipment (like dual monitors) to help them manage the workflow. Agent efficiency translates to smoother, faster, safer calls.

For more information, email: sam@nextcaller.com or visit us at nextcaller.com 

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