The robocall is ranked as one of the most annoying abuses of technology. Ever. Robocalling began gaining traction after the deregulation of the telecommunications industry in the 1980s. The most rudimentary versions use an auto-dialer to run through thousands or even millions of phone numbers, playing a standard recording as someone picks up the phone. However, today's more advanced robocalling technology uses voice-response software that's so good, it’s difficult to tell if it’s a computer or a human. (It even laughs at your jokes!) The more sophisticated systems run with a human “operator” guiding the software in real time through a phone call with the software learning from this process.
Like any technology, its virtue is in its application, and right now robocalling falls into three categories—the good, the bad and the ugly.
Robocalling can be a useful tool for certain types of operations. Pharmacies use it to notify customers that a prescription is ready. Service-based businesses use it to confirm appointment dates and times. Other companies use it to deliver preauthorized audio information like weather updates, flight times or driving conditions to customers who want this information. These types of calls really don’t require a human being, and they're acceptable for robocalling.
Many small businesses see robocalling as an efficient way to identify potential customers. In theory, this is true. Having a computer call 10,000 people, which will automatically connect you to the 50 that are truly interested in your product, beats having to make 10,000 calls. The reality, though, is that most robocalling technology—especially those sold to small businesses—are mediocre. The recordings are of poor quality; there's limited engagement between the software and the human; and people are conditioned to hang up as soon as they realize it’s not a person. Using this technology likely does more harm than good, or at best generates a small return.
Over the past several years, the FTC has seen a rampant increase in “last-dollar scams” perpetrated through robocalling. Victims are usually people facing financial hardship, which makes them desperate. Robocallers greet them with a message about negotiating credit card balances, lowering interest rates or repairing their credit. Those who agree to “learn more” are transferred to an agent who takes their credit card information under the pretense of evaluating helpful programs. In reality, before the call is done, hundreds of dollars in unauthorized charges will be made to the victim's credit card.
The FTC Steps In
The FTC is tired of the bad and the ugly scenarios and has taken decisive action against robocalling. Small-business owners who use robocalls need to be very careful and ensure that they aren’t violating laws or annoying customers.
You can only initiate robocalls to people who have given their express, written consent to receive these types of calls. Failure to adhere to this regulation can lead to fines, injunctions and even asset forfeiture by the Federal Trade Commission. If you send unauthorized robocalls to mobile numbers, you can also run afoul of the Federal Communication Commission.
The FTC is running an awareness campaign to remind consumers to report violations of the Do Not Call Registry and the receipt of unauthorized robocalls. In addition, it's awarding cash prizes to inventors and programmers that develop market-solutions to the robocall epidemic. The FTC recently awarded $25,000 to New York-based programmer Aaron Floss, founder of Nomorobo. Nomorobo is a cloud-based service that screens incoming calls and disconnects those that originate from one of the 1.2 million phone numbers that are flagged as robodialers. This solution helps, but it doesn’t eliminate the problem of robocalls that use unique phone numbers for each call.
The trend is clear—robocalls are annoying and are now being directly associated with multimillion-dollar scams. Legitimate small businesses that are simply trying to save money or generate sales in a cost-effective way run the risk of being lumped together with the bad and the ugly of this business. It's time to ditch the robots, and find more human ways to connect with customers.
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