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May 12, 2015

Stop Calling Me!

Our government has long recognized that unwanted calls are a problem. Way back in 1991 Congress passed the TCPA (Telephone Consumer Protection Act) and more recently, in 2012, the FCC strengthened its protections. These laws and regulations require telemarketers to have prior express written consent to use auto dialers and/or make pre-recorded calls to cell phones.

So unwanted calls are no longer a problem, right?


YouMail recently surveyed a random group of mobile phone users. This survey showed at least a third of them get a spam call every day, and nearly two-thirds waste some time dealing with spam callers.

Think about that. Roughly 100 million Americans get a spam call every day. And nearly 200 million waste at least some time on unwanted calls.

That’s not our idea of a solved problem.

Why There Are Still So Many Unwanted Calls

We see two reasons for all of these unwanted calls:

1. The bad guys don’t care. It’s easy for someone with an off-shore auto-dialer to spoof phone numbers and call about one scam or another. These callers simply have little fear of paying a penalty?—?and it’s become so cheap to make calls that various scams can be very profitable.

2. It’s not just telemarketing calls. While calls that try to sell you something are annoying, they’re not the only calls people don’t want. There are plenty of legal but sometimes unpleasant automated calls, such as reminders that you need to pay a bill, requests for donations for non-profits, or political organizations nagging you to vote.

At YouMail, we are not fans of unwanted calls. So we’re attacking the problem, as part of an intelligent answering service we’ve built that replaces old-school mobile voice mail, and that has now answered billions of calls for millions of users.

Smart Blocking

Our service has long let users individually block callers, so that when they call they get a greeting like this one, that includes SIT tones, followed by “this number is out of service.” This causes auto dialers (and sometimes ex-girlfriends and ex-boyfriends), to conclude that the number they’ve called is not a working number, and sooner rather than later they’ll stop calling it. We’ve seen tens of millions of calls blocked this way. 

We recently, however, went far beyond the block one caller at a time approach, and added a new feature: Smart Blocking.

Smart Blocking automatically detects when a “bad guy” is calling and plays them the out-of-service message. Once we fool one bad guy, we often prevent many future spam calls from ever happening, as they remove “out of service” numbers from their call lists, which are used across many different incoming phone numbers.

In the first few weeks of running Smart Blocking live with our users, we found thousands of numbers that absolutely no one would want to hear from and saved our users from millions of potential unwanted calls. 

How Smart Blocking Works

The hard part is to determine that it’s a “bad guy” calling. Fortunately, we have some data to play with:

  • Our service gets tens of millions of calls each week (hundreds of thousands every hour)
  • Over time, we’ve amassed a huge database of call behavior for many hundreds of millions of phone numbers.
  • Our users have provided numerous indications of whether or not they wanted particular calls.

We then put together a patent-pending system that leverages all of this data to decide whether a number calling a user is definitely a spam call. 

Smart Blocking can also detect when a number is likely to be unwanted, even if some users might be fine with calls from that number. Our users can set an option that requests YouMail to be more aggressive in blocking calls, and block even potential spammers. We’ve had a significant portion of our base opt for this more aggressive option, even as a relatively buried preference, showing how users crave solutions to their spam problems.

“Out of Service” Lists

Reducing unwanted callers is a problem that requires a mix of legal and technological solutions. As more people use YouMail, we get an increasing amount of data about call traffic, and are able to effectively hide more numbers from would-be spammers. In essence, we’re tricking the spammers into building out-of-service lists that effectively save our users countless annoying phone calls.

Score one for the good guys.

About the Author: Alex Quilici is the CEO of YouMail.

Edited by Dominick Sorrentino

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