Robocalls Reached New Highs in 2019. Can We Expect Fewer in 2020?

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Each person in Washington D.C. received an estimated 600 calls, or 1.6 per day.

Americans were pestered by robocalls at unparalleled rates in 2019—and according to a comprehensive review of the annual spikes in call volume, phones in Washington D.C. were hit hardest daily. 

This week the CEO of YouMail, a robocall-blocking app that tracks and produced an annual index of the scammy calls, offered takeaways from the record-setting year and predictions for how 2020 will play out, particularly after legislation was passed to curb the problem. 

“We’ve now had well over 100 billion robocalls in the past two years,” YouMail CEO Alex Quilici told Nextgov.

Once installed, YouMail keeps the automated system-created calls from reaching mobile phones, and extrapolates data to inform its ongoing creation of national trends tracing them. Recapping 2019, the company estimates 58.5 billion robocalls targeted U.S. phones over the course of the year, which marks a 22% increase from 2018 and what researchers called a “stunning” 92% leap since an estimated 30.5 billion were reported in 2017. In October, robocalls reached an all-time monthly record of more than 5.5 billion, but in December, Americans saw a small reduction, receiving about 4.6 billion. The calls often involved scams around health care, interest rates, social security, and student loans.

"We're rooting for this decline to continue, though historically we've seen declines like these followed by even greater peaks," Quilici said. 

According to YouMail’s state-by-state analysis, the trope “everything’s bigger in Texas” also rings true about robocalls. Residents in the Lone Star State endured 6.64 billion robocalls last year, leading ten states that were each hit by more than 2 billion overall. West Virginia and Idaho also saw their own robocalls jump by more than 50% in 2019, and four other states saw at least a 40% increase.

In the review, YouMail officials purported that perhaps the “best measure of the pain of robocalls” can be drawn from looking at how many each person personally receives daily. The “winner” of 2019 in that regard, the company said, was Washington D.C. There, residents were hit by nearly 600 robocalls—or about 1.6 per day. People in Louisiana, Alabama, Nevada, and South Carolina also received 300 or more in 2019, but in Alaska, residents received less than one per week. 

Quilici said there is a range of hypotheses and speculations floating around regarding why people in the nation’s capital received so many. One of the CEO’s guesses is that because the city endures some level of economic deprivation, people receive “lots and lots of payment reminders and are more likely to respond to scams.” The district also has an early area code (202) and Quilici said robocallers often begin with the earliest—both 201 and 202. 

“We don’t know [why D.C.] for sure though,” he said.

Late last year, President Trump signed the Pallone-Thune TRACED Act, which puts forth new requirements for telephone carriers to verify and transparently block unlawful robocalls and also directs several federal agencies to more aggressively combat criminal callers. Quilici said the act’s passage could lead to a small decline in robocalls. 

“Our bet is that there’s a reduction in 2020 on the order of 10%—so maybe 52-54 billion calls.  It’s mostly because of the [act’s] enforcement provisions and the [Federal Trade and Federal Communications Commissions] likely getting to the worst robocallers faster and trying to shut them down,” he said. “When they shut someone down who makes 30, 40, or 50 million robocalls a month, the volume goes down, at least until they’re replaced with someone new.”