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Pulling the plug on spam calls

India saw a deluge of spam calls and SMSes in 2019—do we finally have a solution for them?

Spam calls saw a drop during the lockdown but they are back, to the annoyance of everyone. (Photo credit: iStock)
Spam calls saw a drop during the lockdown but they are back, to the annoyance of everyone. (Photo credit: iStock)

In August, call identification and dialer app Truecaller rolled out an update for Android users. This feature, called Spam Statistics, allows users on the Truecaller Android app to “understand more about the spam” they receive. The idea is to help a user get more information on the spammer.

How is this relevant for Indian users? According to data from Truecaller, the country saw close to 30 billion spam calls in 2019. Truecaller identified and blocked approximately 29.7 billion spam calls and 8.5 billion spam SMSes for Indian users last year—it currently has around 185 million monthly active users in the country. A December 2019 insights report from the company ranking the top 20 countries affected by spam calls during the year saw Indian taking the fifth spot, after Brazil, Peru, Indonesia and Mexico.

Spam calls saw a drop during the lockdown but they are back, to the annoyance of everyone. Now, however, some innovative tools could help users navigate this minefield. Be it keeping a SIM-free number for public use, using Google’s new “Verified Calls” feature or using “Spam Statistics” to judge if an incoming call is worth your time.

This is crucial. For though India may have given up the top ranking it held two years ago, owing to the changing dynamics of smartphone penetration and the source of these calls, it still registered a 15% increase in spam calls last year, the report shows. Indian users received close to 26 spam calls on average every month in 2019. Also, one out of three women users in India regularly received inappropriate calls and SMSes.

Indian users received close to 26 spam calls on average every month in 2019.
Indian users received close to 26 spam calls on average every month in 2019.

“In March-April this year, when the lockdowns were announced, we noticed a sharp dip in the number of spam calls. But they started bouncing back as the economy started opening up—probably because offices started opening and advertising platforms were functioning again. We are working on the 2020 global spam report, which will provide more insight into how much spam India faces compared to several other key markets,” says a Truecaller India spokesperson.

Databases with subscriber numbers are still sold and resold on the dark web. Most consumers share their number at pharmacies and supermarkets, among other places, for loyalty points or discounts. Some places have even made it mandatory to share a mobile number to generate an invoice.

“As a consumer, you have two options. You either refuse to give your phone number or you could end up sharing your number and not knowing how it will be used down the road. What we also noticed is that people share their mobile number but change one or two digits. You are effectively deflecting the spam to somebody else,” says Aditya Vuchi, founder and CEO of Doosra, a virtual mobile number service that lets users share a SIM-free 10-digit number at establishments and locations where you would usually hesitate to use your personal number.

“We all have a personal number that is private and meant only for friends and family. That led us to the idea about a publicly shareable mobile number that you can give to everyone else without worrying about spam calls and messages,” Vuchi explains over the phone. The service was rolled out in September.

Users get a Doosra number after they sign up on its website. Once a number is allotted, all further functions can be controlled by the user through a smartphone app that is available on both Android and iOS. This includes features like smart call blocking, voice mail and trusted services, such as the numbers of businesses or merchants you use often and don’t want to block. “Doosra blocks all calls by default,” says Vuchi. “But you have the ability to allow calls from certain numbers and save them as trusted contacts. Whenever I get a call from any such contact, it doesn’t get blocked and gets forwarded to my regular number,” he adds.

Currently, users with an Indian mobile number can sign up for a Doosra number, which is allotted from a set of numbers purchased from telecom operators. “This is not a 10-digit number that I am generating,” explains Vuchi. The service is available at 499 for six months and 699 for a year. “There are just two plans and it’s fairly simple. This is something that becomes a companion to your primary number. It is not intended to replace it. You share your private number for everything you care about, and for all public needs you end up giving the Doosra number,” says Vuchi.

Other firms, too, are trying to tackle the menace of spam. In September, Google rolled out the “Verified Calls” feature in its phone dialer app for users in the US, Mexico, Brazil, Spain and India. This feature shows the caller’s name, logo, reason for calling, and a verification symbol which indicates that the business has been authenticated by Google, an official blog post explains. The idea stems from “Verified SMS”, a feature launched by the technology giant last year that confirms the identity of the business texting a user. “Spam and scam calls erode trust in businesses and increase costs to consumers,” Gal Vered, a product manager for Google, explains in the post.

Before its release, the feature was tried out as a pilot with businesses and institutions such as banks, food delivery services and logistics companies. Early results indicated that it improved the likelihood of someone taking the call.

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