It wasn’t that long ago when spam threatened to completely undermine the viability of email as a communications tool - particularly for business. As recently as 2014, global spam volume as a percentage of total email traffic hit 71 percent. This percentage has come down considerably (to around 48% as of March 2018), but more critically email and Internet providers, cybersecurity firms, and others have deployed increasingly sophisticated technology and tools to filter out as many of the “spam” emails as possible.

Email spam has not been eradicated and remains a pain point for users, but enough progress has been made to preserve it as an invaluable communications tool. Recognizing a similar consumer breaking point was looming with robocalls, telecom providers have over the past few years been proactive in working towards short- and long-term solutions. Robocalls aren’t simply a nuisance; they threaten the very nature of how subscribers view the value of calling and perception of the telco brand.

While progress has been made, there is still a ways to go: an FTC report indicates that the Agency received 4.5 million robocall complaints in 2017, up from 3.4 million the prior year. Forward-looking telcos are employing or evaluating several strategies to address the robocall challenge. Here are four worth considering: 

Keep subscribers informed of emerging scams

Subscribers seek a better solution than simply hanging up quickly or not bothering to answer the phone at all. Ringless robocalls that go straight to voicemail as well as the ability to generate call revenue even if you don’t answer the phone are just some of the evolving tactics that spammers are adopting. Effective scammers take into account seasonal factors, geography, demographics, really anything that will make the robocall seem more legitimate.

Telcos can strengthen brand trust among consumers by taking an active role as an information source for subscribers on emerging scams or those that are seasonal in nature such as IRS-related robocalls. Over the past several months for example, scammers have targeted U.S. cities such as New York City and San Francisco with heavy Chinese immigrant populations. The robocalls - in Mandarin - purport to come from the Chinese Consulate and direct the recipient to call the Beijing Police Department about financial crimes in China they are being investigated for.

Offer compelling alternative to “free” robocall blocking apps

Consumers now have numerous robocall blocking apps available to them - many which are free and provide limited relief. Without the type of access, data and network coverage that telcos have at their disposal however, these apps are at a disadvantage in trying to keep up with rapidly shifting scammer tactics and phone number banks. As a result, imprecise and ineffective robocall blocking and identification still allow unwanted robocalls to ring through or get dumped directly into voicemail.

Education thus becomes critical; operators must clearly and creatively communicate to customers why robocall volume is increasing and why operators - through their own infrastructure and that of key partners - are uniquely positioned to leverage call and number data to deliver accurate call analysis to subscribers - fast enough for them to make an informed decision before answering a call.

Don’t just eliminate a problem, create an opportunity

Unwanted robocalls have unintended consequences for legitimate businesses that use automated calls to communicate with customers and consumers. For example a pharmacy needing to verify personal information when filling a prescription or any business using robocalls in an above-the-board way suffers if these calls are mis-labeled as spam or simply ignored because consumers don’t answer the phone anymore. Telcos should embrace this challenge as an opportunity; is there a way to display a call from, in this case a pharmacy, that not only verifies its authenticity, but also offers unique subscriber-business engagement opportunities?

A good practice for telcos and any business involved in B2C would be to personalize the message. Smartphone usage is high among most demographics, but millennials literally live on their mobile devices. When you factor in a prevailing myth that scammers overwhelmingly target older adults, this can be a recipe for trouble. Millennials are an appealing target for several reasons, including the fact that they are more comfortable sharing personal and financial information through social media and often extend this practice to phone calls. Millennials also tend to be more activist in donating and supporting worthy causes that scammers can take advantage of. For these reasons, generic alerts and tips may not rise above the noise with younger subscribers, which means that personalizing the message on scams that target how millennials work and play will have a better chance of resonating.

The robocall scourge inundating mobile and landline callers is a challenge that requires coordination and innovation amongst carriers, regulators, legislators and industry. Telcos, for their part, must continue to lead by example in bringing innovative and effective solutions to market.