This article courtesy of Plaza Services, LLC. It was written by Adam Parks and originally published in the Spring 2019 edition of the RMAI Insights magazine, a biannual publication for, by, and about the receivables management industry. For more information about RMAI, please visit rmaintl.org.
Call blocking technology is a new frontier for the receivables management industry. It is creating new challenges for receivables management firms that will need to be addressed as it continues to evolve. This article will discuss how the technology works as well as identifying some of the challenges our industry is facing. Our objective is to provide some background and a frame of reference for the key aspects of call-blocking technology. It is important to note that many of these challenges have not yet been solved, and we are just seeing the beginning of these challenges.
Times are changing. Just as we faced the SPAM email epidemic of the early 2000s, we are now facing a new SPAM epidemic of robocalls. The volume of daily SPAM phone calls received by individuals and businesses has accelerated the need for technology to block unwanted calls and text messages. Each day, consumers receive robocalls from scammers claiming to be the IRS, someone claiming to save them money on their student loans or car insurance, or something else. With all of these incoming SPAM calls, legitimate calls from debt collectors are often lost in the shuffle.
Inconvenience drove the need for better call blocking technology, management, and tools. In efforts to identify and block unwanted calls, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems, along with the networks of most major US carriers, have each started to offer call-blocking features as well as technology that is open to third-party applications.
In a business where the call-and-collect strategy is a major part of business operations, one has to wonder how call blocking will affect the receivables management industry in the long term. Cloud-sourced call blocking technology could potentially have a major impact on business operations and, ultimately, cash flow.
Legitimizing Call Blocking Apps and Tools
Call blocking is not a new feature on smartphones. Historically, those features often required a user to manually block each unwanted number. Spammers understand this and often use many different numbers to avoid the block and complete the call.
The sharp rise of robocalls prompted the FTC to hold a contest to find the best technology for accurate identification of SPAM calls while “whitelisting” calls that recipients may want to receive. Developing this kind of technology is tricky; creators have had to find a way to separate calls that originate from spammers while still allowing legitimate calls from pre-saved and unsaved, but legitimate, contacts.
In their efforts to identify unwanted calls, contestants were given 2 sets of data. The first data set identified calls that are most likely to be a robocall (a call delivering a prerecorded message). Based on information provided in the first data set, contestants then developed an algorithm to predict which of the calls in the second data set would most likely be robocalls. Contestants found different ways to accomplish this task, but no real-world method was as powerful as cloud sourcing.
Cloud Sourced Block Lists
With the rise of cloud sourcing information over the last 3 years, call blocking technology has improved exponentially. Some call blocking apps enable users around the globe to identify SPAM calls and report them back to a main server. This means that when enough people block a phone number, that number will be blocked for all users. Thus, if a handful of people identify your number as SPAM, you could potentially be blocked by millions of people.
Although this technology is great for consumers, it causes unique complications for receivables management firms. While our phone calls to consumers are legitimate, consumers will have the option of blocking the number and instantly alerting millions of other consumers to avoid phone calls from your number. Considering the legal environment already surrounding our ability to make outbound calls, this makes a difficult situation even more challenging.
When we first started testing various call blocking apps, we found that calls from various collection agencies with whom we do business were also being blocked. Through a blocked call message, callers are alerted that they have been identified as SPAM and other methods of communication are suggested. Legitimate callers can easily send an email, but it blocks robocalls from making the phone ring multiple times each day.
Other Objectives for Call Blocking Technology
Individuals want to stop robocalls from interrupting their daily lives, yet they also despise robocallers and spammers. More advanced call blocking technology offers some interesting features, including bots that answer SPAM calls and try to keep callers on the line as long as possible.
Bots fighting bots may seem like something out of a science fiction novel, but it happens on our smartphones every day. People are using apps to fight back against the bots. Calls identified as SPAM are answered by a bot and each phrase spoken by the spammer solicits a specific response from the bot that is designed to try and keep the person on the line just a little longer. This can be sweet payback for those of us that are constantly bombarded by SPAM calls. Plus, it keeps the spammer on the line and unavailable to call their next potential victim.
Some apps record the discussion between the spammer and the bot, creating some very funny interactions. Many of these apps will allow you to take the recordings and share them across Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. By sharing these recordings, friends can enjoy the “funny” interactions with spammers while promoting the use of the app in a viral manner.
The Best Example – Robokiller
There are hundreds of different apps and services that individuals can use for robocall blocking. While each has its own benefits and drawbacks, I’ve found a personal favorite. After experimenting with various tools over the past 2 years, one has risen to the top of my personal usage, Robokiller. This app won the FTC’s call blocking award and, in my experience, has been the most accurate in identifying SPAM calls.
Robokiller is a free phone app that identifies and blocks unwanted calls (based on the calls the consumer has previously received). The premium service, available for $19.99 / year, connects the app to the cloud-based servers so you can proactively identify spam calls based on the experience of everyone using the app. If a number is blocked by multiple people, it will eventually be automatically blocked for everyone.
While using the basic service, I would estimate that 60% of SPAM calls get through. However, with the premium subscription, the volume of SPAM calls that actually make the phone ring is reduced by approximately 90%.
There is No Easy Solution to the Problem
Discussions about this growing problem for the ARM industry has been discussed at various events over the past few years, although I have yet to see a reliable solution. The combination of cloud-based blocking lists tied to the primary phone numbers of consumers is going to continue to challenge the ARM industry as there is no easy way to use technology to bypass these systems or to petition the removal of your number from the call blocking lists.
Finding a reasonable solution to this problem will present a big opportunity for the person that solves the puzzle. As an industry, I think we will welcome a creative solution.