Imposter calls leading threat as robocalls steadily decline

How many times have you picked up your phone this year only to be greeted by a robotic voice urging you to discuss an “important business matter”? Chances are, fewer than last year, if any. The data speaks volumes: 2023 has seen a remarkable 44% drop in all unwanted calls, with robocalls in particular undergoing a substantial 37% decline—a tangible win for consumers.

Yet, amid the good news, a new threat emerges. Over the past two years, imposter-type calls, in which scammers mimic different agencies and companies, have steadily claimed the limelight, accounting for one third of all unwanted calls in the past two years.

Incogni’s research team delved into the latest data from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), carefully examining the trends in phone call spam across the United States. Are we seeing a positive change or is it too early to make that call?

Key findings

  • The number of unwanted calls decreased by 44% (3M to 2.1M) between 2022 and 2023, with robocalls dropping by 37% from 1.8 million to 1.2 million. Over the same period, the number of people on the Do Not Call registry increased by 2.7 million potentially accounting for some of the decreases in spam calls.
  • The ratio of robocalls to live callers has also decreased from 3.1:1 in 2021 to as low as 1.6:1 in 2023.
  • Despite these improvements, the persistence of “imposter” calls involving scammers impersonating agencies is noticeable. They were responsible for over a third of all unwanted calls in 2022 and just under a third in 2023.
  • Delaware residents were the most affected in 2023, with every 1,000 phones registered on the DNC list receiving 12.7 calls. In contrast, Puerto Ricans experienced the least impact from unwanted calls with just 2.53 unwanted calls per 1000 registered numbers.
  • Registrations to the Do Not Call registry have been steadily increasing, with a growth rate of 1.5% per year, starting at 209 million in 2011 and reaching 249 million in 2023. 

Robocalls continue to top the list as the most frequently reported caller type

If you’ve ever registered your number with the Do Not Call (DNC) list1, you know that it can’t shield you from all unwanted calls. Some telemarketing companies, particularly spammers, won’t bother consulting it before launching a new wave of spam calls. And that’s despite heavy penalties.5

When people report such incidents to the Do Not Call registry, they’re asked to choose the relevant category: was the call pre-recorded or automated (also known as a robocall), or was it a “live call” made by a human being? There’s also a small minority of calls for which the type was not specified.

The prevailing trend in robocalls shows a noticeable decline, dropping by 37% from 1.8 million to 1.2 million between 2022 and 2023. This mirrors a corresponding decrease in the total number of unwanted call reports, which fell by 44% (from 3 million to 2.1 million) over the same period.

While robocalls still dominate the landscape of unwanted calls and remain the most frequently reported type, the relative number of robocalls versus live callers suggests another trend: a slow but gradual reemergence of human-made calls. 

According to the 2023 data for all reported calls, 55% were robocalls, live callers made up 34%, and 11% remained unidentified. The previous year, reports indicated that 60% of calls were pre-recorded, and only 29% featured live callers. The ratio of robocalls to live callers has been declining since 2021, where it peaked at 3.1 to 1. In 2022, for every live call, 2.1 were made by robots, and in 2023, the ratio decreased to just 1.6 to 1.

However, the upward trend in live calls is not consistent across all states and territories, as some reported a higher rate of robocalls. In 2023, Oregon residents reported the highest ratio of robocalls to live callers at 3 to 1, followed by Idaho with a ratio of 2.9 to 1. In third position, Minnesota residents experienced a ratio of 2.8 robocalls for every live call. 

On a positive note, in 2023, Puerto Rican residents picked up their phones to the sound of pre-recorded messages least frequently, with 1.7 complaints about robocalls for every live caller. Following closely, West Virginia emerged second, with just over 1.7 robocalls for each live call. South Carolina secured third position when it comes to the proportion of live callers, with each live call matched by 1.8 robocalls. 

The relative proportions of robocalls versus live callers show a positive trend—it seems people have learnt to block and report robocalls. Hopefully, we’re also taking better care of our data to prevent them in the first place. But what are some of the broader trends in unwanted calls? 

Decoding unwanted calls: a state-by-state analysis of complaint trends

To gain insight into how unwanted calls impact the average US resident, Incogni’s researchers examined the number of complaints made to the Do Not Call registry per registered phone number in each state, including the territory of Puerto Rico. The fact that only individuals who have signed up for the Do Not Call list can file complaints means that the data represents a subset rather than the entire population. Despite this limitation, we can still draw meaningful observations about prevailing trends.

Over the years, the number of complaints has undergone significant shifts. The earliest available data from 2011 reveals 2.3 million reported unwanted calls, a figure that steadily grew until it peaked at 7.2 million in 2017. Since then, reported unwanted calls have gradually decreased, with a notable drop following 2021, resulting in 3 million in 2022 and just 2.1 million in 2023. Several factors contributed to this decline, including:

  1. The Robocall Strike Force1: Established in 2016, it’s a coalition of relevant industry members aimed at combating robocalls.
  2. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule changes2: In 2017, the FCC implemented rules allowing service providers to block specific phone numbers.
  3. STIR/SHAKEN Mandate3: In 2020, the FCC mandated STIR/SHAKEN, a technology designed to combat number spoofing.

Incorporating 2023 fiscal-year data (October 1, 2022, through to September 30, 2023), the FTC has disclosed a cumulative total of 54 million complaints since 2011, encompassing over 21 million robocalls and 9.5 million live calls in addition to those which do not specify the caller type. The year 2023 saw the addition of 2.1 million complaints, marking the lowest number of reports among all the years for which annual data is available.

The available data also points to trends across states and years. In 2023, a rate of 8.5 unwanted calls was reported for every 1,000 people registered on the DNC list, marking a decline from the 12.4 calls per 1,000 registrants recorded in 2022.

At the state level in 2023, Delaware topped the list with the highest unwanted call frequency, with 12.7 calls for every 1,000 phones registered on the DNC list. Ohio secured second place with 11.5 complaints filed per 1,000 numbers, followed by Nevada in third place, with 11.1 reported calls per 1,000 registered numbers.

Conversely, Puerto Rico demonstrated the lowest number of unwanted calls in 2023, with only 2.6 calls reported for every 1,000 registered phones. North Dakota claimed the second position in the lowest number of calls, with only 3.8 reported per 1,000 numbers on the DNC registry. Iowa followed closely behind, reporting 4.32 per 1000.

Patterns in complaints to the DNC registry across different states and territories reveal another metric: the most frequently reported topic. Robocalls were clearly too simple a method to do the trick. Have scammers discovered a new, more effective way to perpetrate their scams?

Imposters take center stage, accounting for one-third of reported calls in 2023

Recipients of unwanted calls are prompted to report on the discussed (or attempted) topic of the call. Although certain themes stand out, these category trends have been evolving over time. Approximately a quarter of all reports include an identified category, forming the basis of our analysis. Here, we specifically examine the topics reported in 2023 and how they compare to previous years.

The latest data from 2023 reveals that just two out of the 14 total topics accounted for 58% of all reported unwanted calls throughout the year. These were “imposters” and “medical prescriptions.” Previously, the third most common topic (reported in 15% of calls in 2022), “medical & prescriptions,” ascended to second place, constituting 26% of reported topics in 2023. At the same time, the “imposters” category has maintained its position as the most encountered topic since 2019. Over these same years, ”imposters” played a significant role, responsible for 33% of reported topics in 2022 and maintaining a strong presence at 32% in 2023.

Across all the years with available data, “imposters” consistently emerge as the most frequently featured category, accounting for 25% of all topics reported in calls since 2017. Following closely is “reducing debt,” constituting 20%, and “medical & prescription,” featured in 15% of reported calls.

The imposter label refers to all unwanted calls where the caller impersonated someone else, an agency, or a company. Across all reported topics throughout the years, incidents involving imposters accounted for nearly a quarter of reports, totaling 2.8 million reports.

Even when topics other than “imposters” are reported, the FTC suggests that portions of these may also involve scams.4 The rationale behind this statement is that legitimate marketers would refrain from contacting individuals on the DNC registry due to the associated penalties.5

Overall, the past six years show significant fluctuations in reported topics. In 2017, “reducing debt,” the most frequently featured topic, accounted for 35% of all reported categories but has since declined to 15%, now holding third position. “Vacation & timeshares,” the second most prominent topic in 2017 at 12%, has plummeted to seventh place in 2023, making up just 2% of reported topics today. Similarly, “warranties & protection plans,” which held the third spot in 2017, currently come fifth, reported in only 6% of instances where a call topic is indicated.

Excluding imposters, a worryingly resilient topic, we are clearly making strides in protecting ourselves from standard telemarketing calls. In addition to increased cybersecurity awareness, and the recent rise in popularity of data removal services, US residents are increasingly taking measures to fight unwanted calls. Registrations on the DNC list reflect exactly that.

The Do Not Call list is seeing a continuous uptick in registrations

From 2011 to 2023, the number of registered phone numbers has experienced a steady growth rate of 1.5% per year, starting at 209 million and reaching 249 million in 2023. There are 0.75 registered numbers per American resident. 

The most significant spike in registered numbers occurred in 2012, witnessing a notable 4% year-over-year increase. The following year was the only one that saw a decrease. The exact reason for this decline remains unclear, although it could be related to registrations expiring every five years.6

Surprisingly, the context of the COVID pandemic did not appear to be a factor in people signing up their numbers to the DNC list; 2019 to 2020 data show only a modest increase of 0.84%. 

On the other hand, Incogni’s researchers observed that the second-highest year-on-year increase in recorded numbers happened between 2017 and 2018 (2.4%), immediately after the year with the highest nationwide ratio of complaints per registered number (2017). In 2017, 3 reports per each 100 numbers on the DNC list were submitted, which is the only time the ratio exceeded 1 to 0.03. This suggests that people were troubled by the escalating volume of marketing, spam, and scam calls and sought out solutions. Moreover, Incogni’s researchers found that most spam originates locally.

Looking at the data across the country, the District of Columbia leads in the ratio of registered numbers to residents, with an impressive count of 103.5 for every hundred residents. Following closely is New Hampshire, where 93.6 numbers are registered on the DNC list for every 100 residents. Connecticut secures the third spot, with 93.1 registered numbers per 100 residents.

Conversely, Puerto Rico has the fewest registrations, with 13 registered numbers per 100 residents. Alaska emerges as the next state with the lowest registered-numbers-to-residents ratio, experiencing a notable increase to 55 registered numbers per 100 residents. Texas secures the third-lowest spot, with 57 numbers registered on the DNC list for every 100 Texans.

Unwanted calls highlight the need for more robust data protection laws

The FTC data on registrants’ complaints paints a nuanced picture of strides and stumbling blocks. Despite making headway against robocalls, the persistence of imposter calls remains an ongoing challenge. 

In the absence of strong federal-level protections, big data collection entities operate unchecked, gathering user data without their knowledge or consent, and continuing to invade privacy further with spam calls. In this landscape, comprehensive data privacy legislation would be a much-needed milestone.

However, growing data privacy awareness and individual actions are equally important. The consistent rise in the Do Not Call list registration is a testament to a positive trend.

Methodology

Incogni’s researchers sought out and downloaded yearly Data Books from the Federal Trade Commission’s Do Not Call (DNC) registry7, which is a database listing the phone numbers of individuals who have requested not to be contacted by telemarketers. 

To analyze complaints and registrations from 2011 to 2023, Incogni’s researchers combined all the information into one database. The information about robocalls versus live calls, and the topics discussed during these calls, was separated into its own dataset, as these details are only available starting from 2017. The subset was then used to look at year-to-year changes, analyze patterns across different states, and perform other types of analyses.

The analysis prioritizes the data from 2023 as the most recently published information, ensuring the study remains current and relevant. Consequently, the metrics involving complaints per registrant incorporate the data from 2023, unless explicitly indicated otherwise.

Data collection took place on November 9, 2023.

Limitations

Due to the reliance on the self-reports of people who have voluntarily registered their numbers to the Do Not Call Registry, the data may not comprehensively represent all instances of unwanted calls.

Notes on data

It’s important to recognize that the ratio of registered numbers to population varies among states and territories. This means that the number of people who could potentially report unwanted calls differs from state to state or territory. Consequently, using complaints per population could not be used as a reliable measure to capture state to state variations. To address this, Incogni’s researchers developed an alternative measure, “calls per registrant,” to accurately represent the situation in each state. 

Population data is sourced from the United States Census Bureau and includes information from the year 2022.

The data used in this research is available here: Public dataset.

Sources

  1. Federal Communication Commission. “Robocall Strike Force Report.” Accessed November 9, 2023.
    https://transition.fcc.gov/cgb/Robocall-Strike-Force-Final-Report.pdf.
  2. Federal Communication Commission. “Advanced Methods to Target and Eliminate Unlawful Robocalls.” Accessed November 9, 2023. https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-adopts-rules-help-block-illegal-robocalls-0.
  3. Federal Communication Commission. “FCC Mandates That Phone Companies Implement Caller Id Authentication To Combat Spoofed Robocalls.” Accessed November 9, 2023.
    https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-mandates-stirshaken-combat-spoofed-robocalls.
  4. Federal Trade Commission. “National Do Not Call Registry FAQs.” Accessed November 9, 2023. 
    https://consumer.ftc.gov/articles/national-do-not-call-registry-faqs.
  5. Contact Center Compliance, DNC.com. “What is the penalty for violating Do Not Call list rules?” Accessed November 9, 2023. 
    https://www.dnc.com/faq/what-penalty-violating-do-not-call-list-rules.
  6. ABC News. “Numbers on Do Not Call list will start expiring next year.” Accessed November 9, 2023.
    https://abcnews.go.com/Business/story?id=3639613&page=1.
  7. Federal Trade Commission. “Data sets.” Accessed November 9, 2023.
    https://www.ftc.gov/policy-notices/open-government/data-sets.
  8. United States Census Bureau. “National Population Totals and Components of Change: 2020–2022.” Accessed November 9, 2023.
    https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/popest/2020s-national-total.html.

Visuals

We welcome the reuse of our images as long as proper attribution is given to Incogni. The charts, graphs, and tables used in this research can be seamlessly embedded in your website. Use the menu at the top right of the visual when you hover over it with your mouse. When embedded, these visuals maintain their interactivity and preserve their original quality.

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