Everyone has experienced it. Those annoying callers who often call and disturb you at the worst possible time. Most are harmless sales calls, but others are real fraudulent callers trying to lure money from us, leaving many of us victims of scammers. As a result, few of us dare to take a call when we see “unknown number” on our screen. Maybe it’s an important call that I should answer anyway?
Unfortunately, spam and scam calls increased amid the 2020-21 global COVID-19 pandemic, with a surge in fraudsters trying to trick people into buying non-existent drugs, vaccines, and vaccine time slots. Scammers can often sound very professional when calling their victims, so it’s easy for people to be tricked, especially when we’re in a vulnerable situation regarding our health and private finances, not to mention those of our families. .
Increase in scams and spam calls due to the pandemic
Based on data for 2020-21 collected by Hiya, a technology company that specializes in protecting people from spam and fraudulent calls, we can see some interesting insights and statistics. Overall, spam and fraud calls dropped significantly at the start of the pandemic. This decline was likely due to the disruption caused by lockdowns – call centers closed, spammers were forced to work remotely and many likely lacked the resources to resume large volumes of outgoing calls. Hiya’s data showed a 35 percent drop in spam and fraud calls from March to April 2020, marking the lowest monthly total for spam calls during the pandemic.
After the initial decline in April 2020, spam and scam calls gradually increased, and by July 2020 they had rebounded rapidly to pre-pandemic levels. As the economy picked up again and large outgoing callers resumed operations, spam and fraud calls increased. Between November 2020 and April 2021, the number of spam calls worldwide increased by 67 percent and the number of fraud calls by 35 percent. Compared to the pandemic’s lowest baseline in April 2020, there was a drastic 364 percent increase in spam calls and a 327 percent increase in fraudulent calls over the following 12-month period.
One of the biggest frauds to emerge during this period was COVID-19-related fraud, including fraudsters selling fake vaccines and fake health insurance. Hiya also blocked scammers from stealing COVID-19-related government aid, such as the stimulus control scam in the US, where scammers attempted to steal money from Americans by impersonating government agencies or promising same-day cash deposits. These COVID-19-related scams originally peaked at the start of the pandemic with an 811 percent increase from February to March 2020. While COVID-19-related scams fell from June to October 2020, March 2021 saw the most COVID-19-related scams. related scams of all time, up about 7 percent from the previous year.
The most common COVID-19-related scam in 2021 was the vaccine scam where fraudsters tried to sell fake vaccines, fake vaccination cards and a promise of a non-existent vaccine appointment. These COVID-19 vaccine scams saw significant growth in 2021, rising 208 percent in the first quarter of 2021.
While the US saw the highest number of spam and scam calls, European countries quickly became the main target as well – most likely due to a lack of regulation and call protection services, making Europe a more vulnerable market than the US. For example, in the UK there were a total of 6.6 billion reported fraud calls in 2021. This resulted in an average of 12 scam calls for every member of the population per month. The economic impact of such a significant increase hit people hard – with a reported average loss of USD 680.17 per subscriber.
Issues with existing spam and fraud call blocking solutions
So, how can phone users avoid receiving spam calls?
Several solutions have been developed in the market to block spam and fraud calls. Some solutions analyze spam and fraud calls when people call service providers to complain about certain phone numbers, then the service provider blocks those specific phone numbers. Other solutions include a list of known spammers to block calls. The list is often prepared by regulatory authorities and has its flaws in that the contents of the list are not updated as often as necessary.
One of the latest, most common solutions is for a smartphone user to download an app to their phone that allows them to block numbers that they consider to be spam. However, the app-based solution has several issues such as:
- the spammer can override the filter by changing the original number
- the app needs frequent updates and may be too slow to respond to spammers’ development tactics
- checking the database can add latency to incoming calls
- there is no standardized service level across the network
The combination of these factors makes it difficult for individual users to delete spam and fraud calls.
Communication service providers can now block spam and fraud calls directly in the network
Of course, the easiest and most effective way is to block a spam call that is already in the service provider’s network so that the individual users don’t have to see or worry about call blocking alternatives. This network-based solution would identify suspicious behavior based on many spam calls and spammers’ tactics, and prevent callers identified as spam and fraud from reaching the subscriber’s phone directly in the network.
But here comes the crucial question: how can a network know which calls to block and which to let through? This is where the intelligence comes in with phone call analytics systems.
Ericsson has partnered with Hiya to develop a solution that blocks spam and fraud calls directly in the network’s IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS), the part of the network that enables 4G and 5G mobile voice calls. It is built on new software in the Ericsson Multimedia Telephony Application Server (MTAS). For voice calls made over 2G and 3G networks, spam calls can be blocked through the Ericsson Mobile Switching solution.
The Hiya cloud-based analytics system performs real-time sequencing of existing and new data, meaning it can determine whether a call is wanted or unwanted within milliseconds. To do this, it leverages public and proprietary data sources, including insights from the Hiya network, and builds on continuous learning trust models that screen every conversation.
So, does this make it possible to block all spam calls? Well yes and no. Of course you can block all calls from unknown phone numbers, but sometimes mobile users still need to be reached by people they have not spoken to before, for example the local plumber or the specialist doctor. So there is a balance to block as many nuisance calls as possible, but also allow calls that users do want to answer. Because fraudsters and criminals are always trying to invent new ways to deceive people and circumvent new spam-blocking technologies, the intelligence in the system must therefore be able to adapt quickly.
Of course, it’s a great relief to most people if 50 percent of all spam calls are already blocked, and 75 percent is not unrealistic. But it’s also important to remember that it’s probably not a good idea to set the network or your personal phone profile to block 100 percent of unknown calls because you can block calls you want to receive.
When problems arise, new business opportunities arise
When we encounter a new problem, we often spend most of our time trying to solve it immediately. Therein lie opportunities for new technologies and even new business. As we work a little more on the technology of blocking “unknown numbers”, we realize that there are also opportunities to evolve what is displayed on our incoming call screen. For example, instead of displaying a generic text string, we can develop a solution that provides detailed information about who the actual “unknown” caller is.
For service providers, this potentially means that they can offer and sell a “verified number” service to businesses, corporations and various government organizations. Seeing the name of the company or government on the incoming call screen, along with a certified “stamp” that is the phone number of the company calling, can make the user or company feel much more confident and likely to contact the caller.
Such a service can save a lot of time and money for serious businesses and government agencies trying to get in touch with their existing and potential customers or citizens through phone calls suspected to be spam and thus go unanswered. Let’s not forget that most consumers want to be contacted by phone for important matters.
Blocking spam calls offers many benefits to consumers, such as more peace of mind, less frustration and less time wasted. Businesses and governments will benefit from increased customer pick-up, lower operating costs, and increased trust and brand equity.
The time has come to stop this multibillion dollar spam and scam industry once and for all. The most effective way we can do that, I think, is to stop spam calls directly into the network with new intelligent technology.
Find out how other 4G and 5G mobile voice services add new value to users and increase service provider revenues
Press release: Ericsson and Hiya aim to make spam and fraud calls a thing of the past