Business Unusual

Robocalls: the good, the bad and the ugly

A robocall is one placed by an automated dialer. On the face of it, it is a perfectly reasonable option to streamline volume call placements. This highlights why too much of a good thing can be bad.

There three kinds of robocall.

  • An automated dialer that hands off to a call centre agent;
  • An automated message dialled and played and perhaps with options for the receiver to act on;
  • And, soon, an advanced AI version as demonstrated by Google last year that can have a conversation

South Africa has no shortage of unsolicited calls and if the US is an indicator we can expect the number to rise.

Here are two reasons we are likely to see an increase.

The first is the coming election. Expect some parties to call you a lot and maybe most of them at some point as they jump on the bandwagon.

The second is that while SA has regulations to limit unsolicited calls, they are not easy to enforce. More on that later.

So let’s look at the good, the bad and the ugly.

Not all are bad though; so let start there.

The Good

Card fraud is prevalent. Banks using robocallers can check suspicious payments with you. Bank staff do not see the details, so privacy is maintained and because time is a factor, you could have the bank place the call as soon as the transaction is identified or, if you prefer, at a convenient time. The monitoring software and robocallers never sleep.

Despite meaning to settle bills on time, you may have many each month and prefer not to use debit orders. Allowing robocallers to call with payment reminders may be a useful nudge to avoid issues. Again you could set when you would like the reminder by date and time and have a backup to your system for paying your bills. As more of us become part of the gig economy, it is not only settling bills but sending invoices too. Many freelancers tend to miss the submission dates for their payments as they focus on the work they are tasked to deliver.

Last year Google announced that in cases when their assistant could not digitally complete a request to make a booking, it would place a robocall to make one for you. People were both impressed and shocked that machines could sound convincing enough to have a conversation - they have since said that when a call like this is made it will state that it is a machine calling.

The Bad

Cold calling on steroids; the robocaller dials and plays the initial offer with the request to press a button if you want to hear more. The call is then transferred to a call centre operator to take further. It is bad because you can now call so many more people.

In the US the issue grew to the point that robocalls were effectively stopped in 2015. Humans had to place the calls. In 2017 a lobby group challenged the ruling because it said anything with a capacity to auto-dial was not allowed, which describes your mobile phone. It was not intended to include your mobile. As a result, it was suspended. In 2018 the US reportedly had 48 billion robocalls. There are about 325 million Americans.

Debt collectors may be included here as often debt records are not up to date, or people with bad debt give fake numbers knowing they will get called. Robocalls don’t allow a person incorrectly called to explain the issue.

As bad as those are, the next section is the real worry and why regulators need to get working. Typically scams offer you a fake reward and ask for a small amount to unlock that. You need to call a lot of people to find someone willing to take the bait. Currently, the most popular method is by SMS, but that requires you to respond actively. A robocall saying you have won only needs you to press a button to collect and will connect you with a human that knows they have a good shot of scamming the person on the other end of the line. The robocalls can dial everywhere and anywhere and with call costs dropping it allows for a lot more calls to be made.

The other method is to scare people to believe they owe money (It is popular in the US, and the calls claim to be from the taxman, with an ageing population that are quite tax compliant, it appears to be worth the scammer's efforts. It may not work as well here.)

To stop this, SA does have multiple bodies that deal with this: Wireless Application Service Providers Association, the Direct Marketers Association, The National Consumer Commission and the Infomation Regulator which is excellent. But they each look after certain aspects, and none cover everything. As long as the scam includes a few of the agencies, the odds of a quick resolution will be low.

Consumers will need to push to have those agencies and the justice department and legislature to work on this together. If SA wants to show it has a capacity for managing the upsides of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it needs to start by understanding and making provision for the downsides.

The same tech that created the problem can also solve it. There are apps to block robocalls which are quite useful. Trucaller is one that has created a lot of fans in SA, but you do give it access to all your contacts.

Two men frustrated with robocaller scams began trolling them when they called and filming it. The two now earn money wasting scammers time with the motto that every hour they waste of a scammer is one less hour they can scam you.

There is no quick fix. For businesses, there is an excellent reason to explore this, and the services are available in SA. For consumers; giving out your number comes with new risks - being hassled at best, if not scammed.

The age of the internet being innocent and wonderful is long gone, and we need to start treating it like the same sometimes dodgy place the world is.

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