The Resurrection of Robocalling: Once a Relic, Robocalling Has Reemerged as a Threat to Contact Centers

contributed by Eric Eriksen

It goes without saying that the rise of VoIP has revolutionized the Direct Response world. Plummeting costs and enhanced CTI opportunities allow contact centers ever-better customer relationship management and improved bottom lines. By most standards, internet voice communication has been a godsend. However, these advances cut both ways. VoIP has empowered unscrupulous organizations to overcome the regulatory and price hurdles that once laid harassing robocalls to rest. Law-abiding contact centers stand to lose the most from this development, with as much as 10% of inbound call volume at contact centers coming from robocall operations. Increasingly, an agent will find himself answering multiple dead air calls every day, wasting the company’s time and increasing agent frustration and churn.

Traditional robocalling declined precipitously in the 1990s with the expansion of federal regulation under the TCPA. In 2003, robocalling declined further in the wake of the Do Not Call list. FCC powers covered all US telephony, making it relatively easy to track down and punish violators. At the same time, outbound calls from foreign countries were expensive enough to be cost-prohibitive for low-return robocalling operations. For a brief period, the era of harassing robocalls seemed to have ended. As anyone with a phone knows, however, this calm was short-lived.

While VoIP first emerged in the 1970s, protocols initially resembled those of the first telephones, with no standardization and few calling options. Internet calls only became prominent around 2004, about a decade after a standardization process began. Easily integrated VoIP offered the capability to call the full spectrum (mobile, landline, and other VoIP) of devices across the world for rock bottom prices. Shortly thereafter, the deluge began.

Despite increasing calls for a government response, little headway has been made. This is in large part because VoIP regulation is nearly impossible without private-sector cooperation. VoIP, especially in combination with ANI spoofing (a process in which the apparent number of a caller is altered,) allows overseas robocalling operations to cheaply place calls to American lines of any type. Shutting down a VoIP robocalling number takes time, by which point thousands of useless calls have probably been made. Additionally, the FCC has no authority over telecommunications in the robocalling centers of Eastern Europe and Asia. The result is a totally unregulated industry with low financial barriers to entry and no risk. It’s easy to see why robocalling is increasing at an enormous rate.

Many of these new robocalls differ from those of the past in that they are not meant to harass, inform, or sell. The purpose of these calls is simply to collect a cut of a tiny “CNAM Dip Fee” attached to the call. Essentially, whenever someone makes a call, the phone company on the terminating end of the call must pay a fraction of a penny to the company on the originating end. Robocalling operations take advantage of the new VoIP environment to profit from this through revenue sharing agreements with VoIP providers. The robocall center doesn’t want a real call center’s time or interest, they only want their fraction of the dip fee. Prior to VoIP, the costs for this kind of operation far exceeded the potential benefits, but today, it is possible to make millions of calls (or in some cases, billions,) at almost no cost. The dead air call has turned into an industry in its own right, and it is here to stay.