The business of blocking and labeling calls has gotten big. And competitive. And it's moving very quickly (and sort of slowly too). This business sits at the intersection of privacy, transparency, big data, technology, and the regulatory challenge to stop bad guys who can iterate in a weekend – from their basement. So, where does this all stand?
Let’s review some of the key players.
First Orion was one of the first on the scene. According to their website, they’ve been in the game for 10 years. As the parent company of PrivacyStar, they engaged with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to provide consumer complaints direct from mobile phones to the FTC’s database. Early on, the user could categorize the complaint based on the type of call. The numbers exploded. In January 2012, 389 complaints about debt collection came from PrivacyStar. By 2015 the number averaged 74,800 per month (yes, you read the numbers right). An early 2013 study by insideARM of the accuracy of complaints revealed that PrivacyStar data was far from definitive. We have not repeated the study, but the data quality has no doubt improved since then.
It was also uncovered a few years ago that PrivacyStar was funneling TCPA leads to plaintiffs’ attorneys, including Sergei Lemberg. First Orion representatives have told insideARM that this practice stopped a long time ago.
First Orion’s stated mission today is: “We provide transparency in communication that empowers people to trust their phones again.” They provide the backbone for call blocking and labeling software used by T-Mobile. They are behind labels such as “scam likely.”
They were also the first to engage the industry of call originators. In response to concerns that a “debt collector” label could possibly lead to inadvertent third party disclosure under the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), they were amenable (see the insideARM Perspective here) to implementing other terms instead which were accurate but not so problematic.
In 2017 First Orion launched calltransparency.com to allow callers to register their numbers with the analytics company, in the hopes of ensuring their calls are not blocked, and correcting the way their calls are labeled. In 2018 they re-launched the portal, and now offer an expanding set of paid services to originators.
In 2018 the company announced its inaugural Scam Call Trends and Projections Report, predicting that – without the adoption of more effective call protection solutions -- nearly half of all calls to mobile phones will be fraudulent in 2019. The figure was quoted far and wide. The data they released showed that mobile scam calls increased from 3.7 percent of all calls in 2017 to 29.2 percent in 2018.
As an aside, an early investor in First Orion has just published a book called, “Now What? The Biography of a (Finally) Successful Startup.” Charles Morgan, subject of the book and founder of Acxiom Corporation, says it’s a story of a wildly successful entrepreneur – and the role of data in today’s business world.
In October 2017 Hiya announced the closing of $18M in funding for expansion. The company provides call blocking and labeling software to AT&T and also offers a Hiya app directly to consumers.
Hiya has released its own robocall reports. Just last week the company’s State of the Phone Call report said its data shows consumers pick up 52% of all incoming calls. They break this down by what level of identification the call contains, with these average pick up rates:
- 70% of calls that are “saved in contacts” are picked up
- 53% of calls identified as a business are picked up
- 38% of calls that are “not saved to contacts” are picked up
- 24% of calls that are not identified are picked up
- 9% of calls identified as spam are picked up
(What’s also true is that Hiya is now marketing services to businesses that allow them to brand their calls.)
Major media loves these stats. Among others, The Washington Post wrote about the latest Hiya data.
Transaction Network Services (TNS)
The oldest of the three major analytics firms, TNS is the third leg of the stool providing call analytics engines to the major carriers. They provide call blocking and labeling services to Verizon and Sprint. To my knowledge they do not publish a robocall report. They have also begun to offer analytics services to call originators.
Aside from its role in the call blocking/labeling ecosystem, TNS is one of those extremely large and impactful companies many have never heard of. They are the primary provider of managed infrastructure, networking and communications services for many national and global organizations.
They were kind of late to the game in terms of working with industry to understand the unintended consequences of call blocking and labeling, but they're at the table now. In November 2018 the company launched a website called www.Reportarobocall.com. According to the launch announcement, "The solution gathers feedback from the public about high-risk (scam/fraudulent) and nuisance calls and enables legitimate businesses to dispute the tagging of their phone numbers to help ensure outbound calls are verified, labeled correctly and get through to their customers."
Launched in 2017, Numeracle aims to tie it all together. Think of them as providing analytics on the analytics companies. They offer to handle registration with the various analytics providers (so call originators don’t have to establish multiple relationships) and provide visibility into what’s happening with the company’s phone numbers: Which are being blocked? Which are being labeled? By whom? With what label? Numeracle also verifies the call originator’s identity, call compliance infrastructure and use of its phone numbers for the purpose of customer communications to certify the caller’s status as a trusted entity.
They too have a mission based in transparency: To build the framework and technology that provides a foundation of trust in customer communications by enabling transparent flow of information from origination to destination.
Many in the Accounts Receivable industry know Neustar because of their TCPA compliance solutions. They are a major company that provides marketing, risk, registry, digital defense, and communications solutions. They are also a major provider of caller ID (CNAM) information to carriers.
Through its Branded Contact Management and Caller Intelligence suites, Neustar offers Branded Call Display and Caller Name Optimization services to call originators, and Robocall Mitigation services to carriers. The company also markets a “Certified ID” service which provides visual indicators to a call recipient that a caller’s information has been authenticated and verified (Note: To my knowledge, this capability does not exist yet. Under that product link, the website says “We’re taking a leading role in developing standards and IP-based solutions. As standards emerge, we validate the authenticity of digital certificates…”)
Last month the company announced it had acquired TRISTID, a provider of caller authentication and fraud prevention systems for contact centers.
I have a few thoughts.
One - The irony of this new ecosystem is that many of its participants say they stand for greater transparency, yet their evolving business strategies and the algorithms they use to label calls have been quite opaque. In part, I see why. First – they wouldn’t want to reveal the formula to the bad guys. Second - this is an incredibly competitive and fast-moving market.
Two - It makes a lot of sense to me that businesses like these would offer callers the ability to announce who they are and why they are calling. It’s what consumers want to know. It turns out there are myriad reasons why it will take a while for widespread adoption of this “enhanced” information, including variability in (mostly mobile) hardware, software, data plans, and no doubt other issues. I suspect, though, that this will all be worked out in the coming few years and eventually an unidentified call will be the exception rather than the norm. This – combined with the expected implementation of the STIR/SHAKEN protocol for verifying the true call originator – should help consumers to trust who is ringing their phone and to have the information they need to decide whether to answer.
Three - My personal bailiwick has been to convince regulators that the loss of trust in the phone ecosystem has created a crisis of conflict between consumer demand for both privacy and transparency, and the way this plays out in debt collection. The FDCPA prohibits collectors from communicating with a third party about someone’s debt. The Act defines "communication" as “the conveying of information regarding a debt directly or indirectly to any person through any medium,” but it does not define this key term “information.”
As a result, courts established an extremely broad definition of "information" which evolved to include things like internal collection agency account numbers appearing through the window of a collection letter envelope and even the legal name of the debt collector in some circumstances. Of course, “information” likely also would include “enhanced caller ID” which would reveal the true name of who is calling, and possibly also why they are calling (even though this information would be truly useful to the called party).
Due to the legal landscape caused by FDCPA litigation, debt collectors are forced to appear unforthcoming when initiating communication with consumers. If you’re still with me, you can read more about this and my suggested solutions.
Finally -- the thing I mentioned above about First Orion funneling TCPA leads to consumer attorneys? Well, it seems it is indeed still happening (or at least it was in 2016). This Forbes article from earlier this week details the case of Donell Tillman v. Ally Financial. Tillman used an app called Block-It, which is sold by First Orion. He received a call from Ally which was meant for the previous owner of the phone. Tillman submitted a complaint. He received a return text, “I will be sending your case to Billy Howard in Florida. He is the best… you can google him. This should be a very simple case for him to settle quickly.”