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End of 2019 sees robocalls decline as prevention efforts ramp up

The U.S. saw a significant drop in the number of robocalls at the end of 2019, signaling that either federal prevention efforts are working — or even scammers need a holiday break.

Americans received just under 4.57 billion robocalls in December 2019, down from 5.02 billion a month earlier, according to YouMail, a robocall blocking software developer that tracks robocalls in the U.S. The December figure also represented a 19% decrease from October 2019's 5.66 billion robocalls, which set an all-time monthly record.

Scam calls, in particular, fell 16% to 1.94 billion in December 2019 compared to the previous month, while other generally legal robocalls, such as alerts and reminders, stayed mostly flat.

YouMail attributed the drop to both the holiday break and "widely publicized enforcement actions." The last month of the year saw the TRACED Act moving through Congress before being signed into law by President Donald Trump on Dec. 30, 2019.

The law enables the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to enforce up to a $10,000 fine for robocall violations and extended the statute of limitations for enforcement actions from one year to four years. The law also requires the FCC to mandate that all voice service providers implement a call authentication framework within 18 months without adding new line item charges on consumer bills.

"While the TRACED Act may not eliminate all the robocalls Americans receive, it will go a long way toward making it safe to answer your phone again," U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said in December 2019 of the bill he had co-introduced.

Even before the law, major U.S. carriers, including AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and T-Mobile US Inc., had begun rolling out call authentication technologies based on a cross-industry caller ID framework, which helps operators gauge the legitimacy of a calling party's number. Sprint Corp. in December 2019 began offering Sprint Call Screener Basic, a free service that "identifies unwanted malicious calls and permits users to block them," and also a $2.99 a month service that "identifies, blocks, and reports additional calls that are lower-risk, but still a nuisance."

YouMail and others warn that it is too soon to declare mission accomplished in the battle against robocalls.

"We're rooting for this decline to continue, though historically we've seen declines like these followed by even greater peaks," YouMail CEO Alex Quilici said in a statement. The firm noted that robocall volumes tend to bounce around month to month, meaning that it is impossible to determine a trend from just one or two months of data.

All in all, YouMail counted 58.54 billion robocalls in 2019, up from 47.84 billion in 2018.

Recently, Richard Shockey, a member of the FCC's technical advisory board, said he expects it could be another decade before unwanted robocalls are eliminated, according to Consumer Reports.

"We have been at this now for about four years already, and we will probably have 10 years more to go," Shockey said.

The good news is that the 12-month trailing average for robocalls has remained fairly constant for the last six to nine months rather than continuing to move higher, according to YouMail.

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