A Case Against Automated Voice Messages


A deluge of automated voice messages is the latest menace we all are facing. A series of numbers starting with 713xx is used solely to send you voice-recorded messages at any time of the day, including early morning. You can keep blocking the numbers, but they will keep coming back with a different one.

What do these messages say? The one I receive most often says they are from the ministry of home affairs and calling for a Swachhata Sarvekshan or cleanliness survey. If only I could answer them, I would tell them how they spoil my peace of mind and invoke anger, leaving my mental energy unclean. Then there are credit card offers, loan offers and insurance sellers. The worst are the callers who dial random numbers and then want to know who you are. Many use the tactic of pretending to be an old friend you have forgotten. They get a precious few seconds’ access to your phone till you figure out the real motive.

From a business perspective, I do not see any conversion happening through these automated calls. In fact, they may well work against the brand and antagonise potential customers. The top brand recall is that of the sheer nuisance they add to my day. Even if I am looking for a product or service you are selling, I would stay away from a brand that has annoyed me enough already. You have been a productivity killer for me, interrupted my precious sleep or the flow of my conversations, and broken a creative thought process.

If marketing calls are a nuisance, fraudsters take it to another level. Lately, I have been getting calls from Bengaluru-based landlines saying all the mobile phones linked to my Aadhaar number would be disconnected in the next two hours unless I do what the caller tells me to. I disconnect even before the complete message is spoken. But I remember that when I received it the first time it did scare me, for what would we do without a mobile phone. It is obviously a scam, as my phone is still working.

Another day, I received a similar threat that my credit card would be discontinued unless I instantly did my KYC. I might have fallen for it, but for the fact that I did not have any credit card from the bank they mentioned. I have had innumerable job offers from absolute strangers on WhatsApp that start by saying hello like an old lost friend.

The Do Not Call registry exists in principle, but in practice it has no meaning whatsoever. I have forgotten the number of times I have registered the request with my mobile service provider; but am yet to see any impact. Is it not the time to implement with an iron hand? I am sure the cybercrime authorities can do with a smaller number of cases to handle.

The baniya in me thinks here is a great opportunity for telecom operators and the government to create a revenue model around automated messages. As of today, these messages cost hardly anything to the senders. While they may be overloading the systems for service providers or messaging platforms. Making the cost pinch the sender will make the marketing teams think judiciously. Today, when they are just rampantly flooding my inboxes, the cost is borne by me in terms of lost productivity and annoyance.

They just buy databases available at a throwaway prices, which is another area needing strict regulation. If sending mass messages cost the sender substantially, they would at least work on customer segmentation and send it to only those who are most likely to convert. Another way to get around this may be the way advertising works for content creators. Let advertisers pay for people to listen to their messages. UPI and e-wallets can easily enable it.

I strongly think the government should restrict automated voice messaging to emergency announcements. For example, weather alerts, disruption in services or potential threats the citizens ought to know. Right now, even if they want to send an alert, I would probably not pick up an unknown number. Yes, they can have special numbers to communicate emergency messages. But, they will have to think ahead of scamsters who will find a way to impersonate them.

At the very least, there can be a compulsory disclaimer that it is an advertisement. Like, say, on mutual funds ads. Can there be an audio marker that tells us that this message is from the authorities or advertisers that can help us decide to pick or not to pick? Caller identification worked for a while, but not many are willing to pay for a data with limited reliability.

For telecom providers, KYC is the key to trace who is sending these messages from multiple numbers. If there is too many block requests for a number, the companies should double-check the credentials. For a higher number of blocks, some kind of fraud alert should be triggered. Cyber police and telecom operators need to work as a team for proactive fraud prevention.

Unless we restrict unwarranted access to our phones, we are sitting on a minefield of scams and frauds, besides losing our precious productivity. The more power we assign to our phones, more they become vulnerable for misuse.

First published in The New Indian Express on 28 Apr, 2024.

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