Dead Air Calls Cannot Disconnect Us

by Shannon Nelson and Jay Haverty on May 22, 2015 3:30:00 AM DRTV

Dead_Air_Calls-390599-editedThe more efficient any call center or customer service operation, the more effective the transaction and, ultimately, the more positive—and potentially lucrative—any one-to-one consumer experience.

It’s the common goal toward which everyone along the DRTV spectrum aspires, uniting the frontline agent, the advertiser relying heavily upon toll-free numbers, and the manufacturer or provider of the products or services being marketed.

Yet now, more than ever, a silent threat is preying upon that efficiency and common good—the rising tide of “dead air” calls cascading into call centers, tying up valuable resources, frustrating often over-taxed personnel, and throwing sand into the most well-oiled gears of a myriad of diverse ventures.

The repercussions to individual companies and the collective industry are huge and, unfortunately, only beginning.

  • Agents are spending so much time and effort separating the dead air chaff from valued customer wheat that legitimate calls are too often neglected or dropped.
  • Clients utilizing third-party call centers are victimized by per-minute usage charges that continue to soar without producing reciprocal positive results.
  • Marketers are reining back media spends for fear of becoming inundated with an even greater proportion of useless dead air calls to each valid one they would otherwise hope to initiate.

The true cost cannot be measured in overhead, inefficiency or even frustration, but in confidence. The viability of toll-free numbers is not only waning but on the verge of breaking— and, what’s worse, for no legitimate reason based upon their actual results when employed correctly.

Who’s Behind It?

Dead_Air_Calls2-010251-editedThe primary culprits for initiating many dead air calls are often easy to identify and round up, but there’s now a far more virulent—entirely intentional—menace to toll-free infrastructure and productivity it’s now up to each of us to help identify and eradicate.

Ask most experts and they’ll tell you that between about three and five percent of the time, someone will misdial, get cold feet when the agent answers and hang up or the system itself will inadvertently malfunction. Add three relatively benign robo-technologies out wandering the telephony wilderness in search of their own random connections and you have what amounts to more of a collective nuisance than intentional assault on toll-free marketing and transactional capabilities.

  • Political advertisers running tests on certain numbers before discharging their next volley of candidate ads
  • Companies harvesting as many toll-free patch as they can, randomly dialing out to see which ones ping back with an answer
  • Fax machines (yes, fax machines) attempting to connect with their soon-to-be extinct kind, hoping for one last chance to distribute their fax-specific printed messages

Yet more frequently than not, what may have previously been an acceptable level of dead air calls is now exacerbated by the same sort of intended “denial of service” attacks usually reserved for popular websites.

What’s Their Motivation?

There are many who want to generate abnormal amounts of dead air calls—and all of them point to some malfeasance on the part of some other party, either with an axe to grind or simply motivated to make money in a fraudulent manner. 

Here’s a quick summary of three of the worst intentioned:

First, the most common type of dead air call derives from “per inquiry fraud” or “pumping.” It’s when advertising partners or vendors, usually working off of a per-call payout scheme, flood their assigned phone numbers with fake calls in an effort to increase their revenue. It’s fairly simple to identify by looking for repeated inbound caller IDs or a pool of repeat callers in the telephony records.

Believe it or not, we recently conducted an investigation into a “pumping” incident and identified the flood of silent calls as emanating from a group of TV stations our client was compensating based on the specific number of calls those same stations helped to generate.

The second source of more degenerate dead air calls is focused less on any specific victim and function by tagging a small “tax” upon a huge volume of transactions, not at all unlike the “blameless” fraud that lies at the heart of the popular film “Office Space.”

Phone companies charge one another tiny fractions of a cent to transact activity across their networks and interchanges and so an unscrupulous operator can arrange for massive volumes of traffic to move to randomized toll free numbers, funneling a small fee back to the fraudulent operator. The end result, regrettably, is that any legitimate call center is left holding the bag, subsidizing the scheme and suffering lost sales, angry customers, and frustrated agents for its involuntary financial investment.

Finally, the third and most nefarious source of dead air is the intentional “denial of service” attack with all the venom and malicious intent that any unethical competitor, disgruntled former employee or other hijack artist would perpetrate on a popular website.

With the proliferation of cheap, Web-based, VoIP predictive/automated dialer software solutions, a reasonably tech-savvy person can illegally spoof his Caller ID and bombard a call center with inbound dials, severely hampering that center’s ability to operate. Since many of these tools are software-based and the instigator is utilizing VoIP, any reasonably powered computer and run-of-the-mill broadband connection will enable the bad actor to move his operation from one physical location to another (or virtual data center to another) to avoid detection. Even worse, that individual can conduct a “distributed denial of service” and route the inbound traffic from multiple locations.

Combating the Problem

Dead_Air_Calls3-366993-editedYou know you’re definitely under an intentional attack when the perpetrator begins to adjust or evolve his offense once you begin to exert any defensive countermeasures. For instance, working on behalf of a client who suspected his firm was under attack, we investigated inbound call logs to determine if legitimate or spoofed (fake) caller IDs were being used as part of the attack and determine which toll-free numbers in the pool were being targeted. Next, we installed an IVR (interactive voice response) script as a first-tier protection, asking the caller to press “one” to speak to a live operator.

While this sort of countermeasure can help to stop some of the dead air calls, it can also cost sales since many callers will hear the IVR script and hang up, refusing to speak to a robot. In our client’s case, the IVR caused the volume of dead air calls clogging their call center to drop to virtually zero—but the digital rampart held for less than five days.

In order to counter the IVR tier, the attacker programmed his dialer to auto-generate a button-press tone soon after as the line connected, and the massive amounts of dead air soon returned. We partnered with an external data provider to determine whether inbound caller IDs were valid or spoofed and sporadically altered the IVR responses—including evaluating audio activity on the line before connecting to an agent.

In the end, we helped to limit the collective lost agent time throughout the call center, but the solution added unnecessary operational costs and frustration for everyone involved.

So what do we do—throw up our hands and wish Hell-fire and eternal damnation upon the perpetrators?

For now, at least, none of the major telephony providers can identify these dead air calls immediately upon connection, and they all lack for an automated reporting option. IVRs and audio signal blocks can help return to normal operations, but it’s not a long-term or industry solution. It’s the Band-Aid on the seeping wound.

The first step for anyone, and therefore beneficial to everyone, is to know that you’re definitely not alone in suffering from these sorts of dead air attacks and the best thing to do is share the experience. If you’ve experienced such a fraud or an attack, we’d love to talk to you, to hear your experiences, and to learn how you dealt with them. The more the industry shares information, tactics and stories, the better prepared we’ll all be to prevent and stop these attacks.

Many telephony service providers over-write their call logs at the switch level (necessary for tracking the true path of each call) every few weeks. Make sure you have specific data and a record of what’s happened. Then, engage your telephony service provider—have them help investigate the sources of the calls to try to pinpoint a common source of the calls, or even the location of call origination, and block incoming traffic from that source or location.

If your carrier is unable or unwilling to help, you can bring in bigger guns—specifically, local or federal law enforcement and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). With the FCC and law enforcement working on the problem, your carrier will have additional motivation (and help) with their own investigation, and once the malefactor has been identified, the FCC can shut them down and you can initiate a civil suit against the bad guys.

Given the ease of conducting such frauds and denial of service attacks, this type of bad behavior is only likely to increase. Rather than remaining remote and managing the occurrences when dead airs volume puts our own interests at risk, we must instead rededicate ourselves to striving together to identify and eliminate this scourge to our mutual benefit.

Shannon Nelson is CRO of Media Properties Holdings. Jay Haverty is the chief executive officer of d50 Media.

Call Center Agent photo by artemisphoto/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Telephone photo by maya picture/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Hand Holding Receiver photo by aopsan/FreeDigitalPhotos.net


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