Tim Feran The Columbus Dispatch @timferan
AT&T has hit a milestone in the battle against unwanted robocalls: The telecom’s Network Analytics Program, introduced in late September, has now blocked more than 1 billion unwanted robocalls.
The AT&T fraud-management team and AT&T big data scientists created the system, which examines more than 1.5 billion calls each day for patterns that indicate robocallers.
“That process yields a list that is handed over to a human team of fraud experts,” said spokeswoman Holly Hollingsworth. “They conduct further research to avoid suspending legitimate automated calls.” These legitimate calls could be those commonly sent by school district to parents, for example.
Suspicious activity that would alert the fraud experts includes such things as multiple short-duration calls to numbers on the National Do Not Call list.
The program “is working on calls originating on AT&T lines, before they’re received, and they could have been received by anyone, AT&T customer or not,” Hollingsworth said.
The AT&T program is part of a larger effort across the industry in response to the surge in unsolicited sales calls that were supposed to be eliminated when the Do Not Call registry launched in June 2003.
While the Do Not Call list was a rousing success in the beginning, since 2009, the Federal Trade Commission has seen a significant increase in the number of illegal sales calls — particularly robocalls, which are generated by computers.
The reason is technology, which has made it easier and cheaper not only for individuals to make phone calls, but also for solicitors, including scam artists.
Autodialers can initiate thousands of phone calls a minute for a very low cost. Not only do computer-powered phone systems make it cheap and easy to make calls from anywhere in the world, but the systems also allow callers to provide fake caller-ID information, which helps them hide from law enforcement.
Columbus has been among the top cities for sending out robocalls because the city is home to a large number of telemarketing companies. The most recent statistics indicate that the area has more than 3,300 telemarketing workers, 97 percent more than would be expected in a region this size, said Columbus economist Bill LaFayette, owner of the consulting firm Regionomics.
Legitimate telemarketers work well with the government program because they participate in the Do Not Call program and scrub their call lists monthly, FTC officials said.
Last year, Tom Wheeler, who then was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, assembled a “Robocall Strike Force” in response to the more than 200,000 complaints a year that the FCC receives about the pesky calls.
“Americans are fed up,” Wheeler said in launching the group. “Robocalls are a scourge. It’s the number one complaint that we hear from consumers at the commission.”
The Strike Force, composed of more than 30 telecom and tech companies and led by AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, issued a final report in October. The report outlined the Strike Force’s efforts to accelerate the development and adoption of new tools and solutions to minimize robocalls and promote greater consumer control over the calls they wish to receive. Those tools include the AT&T Network Analytics Program. “The new data analysis program helps protect everyone with a phone number — wireless, wireline, etc. — because it works on the send side, not the receive side,” Hollingsworth said.
For those who want to do something about receiving unwanted robocalls, AT&T in December introduced another service, AT&T Call Protect, a free program that automatically blocks fraud calls and gives screen alerts for suspected incoming spam calls. It works for eligible AT&T wireless customers with HD Voice.
Similarly, in January, Time Warner Cable/Spectrum joined services such as Verizon in giving its landline phone customers the option to use Nomorobo, a free third-party call-blocking application, with one click of a button on its home phone-management website.
Dozens of call-blocking services are available for smartphones, too, and many are free, including Nomorobo as well as Youmail, Call Blocker, Whitepages ID and Robokiller.
The FCC also provides resources for consumers at fcc.gov/unwanted-calls.