The Good Robocall: When a “Scam” is Not a Scam

You’re busy moving through the day when your cell phone rings. You look to find it’s yet another call from “Scam Likely,” so you ignore it. You, like millions of other Americans who receive what feels like a never-ending stream of disrupting robocalls, are happy to hear that your cell phone carrier is finally cracking down. Due to recent FCC rulings, they are now able to implement more aggressive, default robocall blocking initiatives, and you too could take advantage of these new protective measures.

No more robocalls?! Great! What’s there to lose?? Actually, a lot.

There is a critical flaw within this seemingly positive initiative—a flaw rooted in the technological limitations involved in the identification of good vs. bad calls, legal vs. illegal calls, or wanted vs. unwanted calls. Based on the analytics used across the carrier and ‘call blocking app’ ecosystem, legal, wanted, critical, and life-saving calls from legitimate organizations are falsely identified as “harmful” and blocked—or the number comes through classified as a “fraud” or a “scam” to the recipient. This makes the successful receipt of such critical communications by those that depend on them much less likely to occur. The consequences of these missed communications can range from annoying and inconvenient to devastating.

My name is Rebekah Johnson, and I am the founder and CEO of Numeracle, a DC-based tech firm focused on providing visibility and control to improve the accurate presentation of wanted calls. Through the work we’re doing across the telecom industry to protect the originators of legal, necessary calls, I have had the opportunity to partner with Appriss to bring to light the negative consequences resulting from the improper classification of critical communications.

Appriss’ flagship solution, VINE (Victim Information and Notification Everyday) is the nation’s leading automated victim notification system. Simply, victims and concerned citizens can register, via VINE, and be notified when an offender is released from jail or prison. VINE is used across 48 states, providing millions of Americans the peace of mind they deserve. Appriss provides automated notifications in real time to registrants based on the delivery method they select. Such methods include email, text message, in-app notification, TTY, and, importantly, telephone. VINE telephone notifications are legal, needed, wanted, expected. They are necessary to protect and uphold the safety of millions of VINE registrants and their families. VINE telephone notifications are also categorically “robocalls” and are subject to default blocking initiatives.

In partnership with Appriss, Numeracle conducted an analysis on the telephone numbers that VINE uses to make its outbound notifications. Alarmingly, we discovered that one of the primary phone numbers used to make VINE notifications across the country—a telephone number that provides over 4.3 million offender custody notifications over a typical 3-month period—was improperly classified as “scam” or “spam.” A call rated as such runs the risk of being blocked by default at the carrier or service provider level or delivered with a “spam,” “scam,” or “fraud” warning label. How many registrants—who have explicitly requested these notifications—would answer their phone when a call is presented as a “scam” or “spam?” Probably not very many.

I took this evidence to the call labeling analytics companies, carriers, and the FCC through Ex-Parte meetings attended by members of the Numeracle and Appriss teams. As I warned many times during these conversations, my fear is that the potential harmfulness caused by blocking legal calls is exponentially greater than any harm an un-blocked robocall could ever inflict upon a consumer. Our mission was to not only correct the problem of improper call blocking and labeling for VINE notifications, but to bring awareness around the improper blocking and labeling of all critical, wanted, lifesaving, and safety notifications.

The results of our efforts have improved Appriss’ ability to successfully deliver VINE notification calls, but the broader issue remains. The correction of many other similarly miscategorized telephone numbers across all carrier and app providers is still very much an issue. While we fully support the need to identify and block illegal call traffic, we caution against the over-confidence in these technologies which continue to catch legal callers in the crossfire. Awareness and support are growing for the protection of critical callers, with Appriss and Numeracle on the front lines of this battle, but much cooperation is needed to properly address this issue on a larger scale.

We will continue to speak out and provide further understanding surrounding the impact of default call blocking on legal, wanted calls across the safety, security, healthcare, retail, financial industries, and more. Bringing these stories to light on a variety of platforms will continue to put real evidence in front of those who need to hear it most. Our determination will continue to grow as we work to restore trust and transparency to the voice channel: one successfully identified call at a time.

learn more about Numeracle and how it partners with vine to ensure victims stay safe

Rebekah Johnson, Founder and CEO at Numeracle


Rebekah Johnson, Founder and CEO at Numeracle

Rebekah Johnson is the industry’s leading expert in solving the challenges of call blocking and labeling for legal enterprises and call center solution providers. A former FCC Robocall Strike Force Member, Rebekah now serves on the ATIS/SIP-Forum IP-NNI Task Force (group co-authoring SHAKEN) and as a regulatory, technology, and industry advocate driving trusted entity identification and critical call delivery efforts.

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