Why One Man Spent 12 Years Fighting Robocalls


At some point, our phone habits changed. It used to be that if the phone rang, you answered it. With the advent of caller ID, you’d only pick up if it was someone you recognized. And now, with spoofing and robocalls, it can seem like a gamble to pick up the phone, period. In 2023, robocall blocking service Youmail estimates there were more than 55 billion robocalls in the United States. How did robocalls proliferate so much that now they seem to be dominating phone networks? And can any of this be undone? IEEE Spectrumspoke with David Frankel of ZipDX, who’s been fighting robocalls for over a decade, to find out.

David Frankel isthe founder of ZipDX, a company that provides audioconferencing solutions. He also created the Rraptor automated robocall surveillance system.

How did you get involved in trying to stop robocalls?

David Frankel: Twelve years ago, I was working in telecommunications and a friend of mine called me about a contest that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was starting. They were seeking the public’s help to find solutions to the robocall problem. I spent time and energy putting together a contest entry. I didn’t win, but I became so engrossed in the problem, and like a dog with a bone, I just haven’t let go of it.

How can we successfully combat robocalls?

Frankel: Well, I don’t know the answer, because I don’t feel like we’ve succeeded yet. I’ve been very involved in something calledtraceback—in fact, it was my FTC contest entry. It’s a semiautomated process where, in fact, with the cooperation of individual phone companies, you go from telco A to B to C to D, until you ultimately get somebody that sent that call. And then you can find the customer who paid them to put this call on the network.

I’ve got a second tool—a robocall surveillance network. We’ve got tens of thousands of telephone numbers that just wait for robocalls. We can correlate that with other data and reveal where these calls are coming from. Ideally, we stop them at the source. It’s a sort of sewage that’s being pumped into the telephone network. We want to go upstream to find the source of the sewage and deal with it there.

Can more regulation help?

Frankel: Well, regulations are really, really tough for a couple of reasons. One is, it’s a bureaucratic, slow-moving process. It’s also a cat-and-mouse game, because, as quick as you start talking about new regulations, people start talking about how to circumvent them.

There’s also this notion of regulatory capture. At the Federal Communications Committee, the loudest voices come from the telecommunications operators. There’s an imbalance in the control that the consumer ultimately has over who gets to invade their telephone versus these other interests.

Is the robocall situation getting better or worse?

Frankel: It’s been fairly steady state. I’m just disappointed that it’s not substantially reduced from where it’s been. We made progress on explicit fraud calls, but we still have too many of these lead-generation calls. We need to get this whacked down by 80 percent. I always think that we’re on the cusp of doing that, that this year is going to be the year. There are people attacking this from a number of different angles. Everybody says there’s no silver bullet, and I believe that, but I hope that we’re about to crest the hill.

Is this a fight that’s ultimately winnable?

Frankel: I think we’ll be able to take back our phone network. I’d love to retire, having something to show for our efforts. I don’t think we’ll get it to zero. But I think that we’ll be able to push the genie a long way back into the bottle. The measure of success is that we all won’t be scared to answer our phone. It’ll be a surprise that it’s a robocall—instead of the expectation that it’s a robocall.

This article appears in the May 2024 issue as “5 Questions for David Frankel.”

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