Thursday, April 30, 2020
Whether for emergencies, business or out of boredom, people are spending a lot more time on the phone these days.
In fact, Verizon CEO Hans Vestburg told CNBC in late March call volumes are eclipsing New Year’s Eve and Mother’s Day combined—every day. Not only was the company handling 800 million calls and 9 billion texts daily, the calls were 33 percent longer than average.
But for two businesses that support the telecom industry, the reality has been more nuanced. For Round Room, Verizon’s primary distributor and agent with stores in 44 states, the challenge is keeping up with sales, not calls, says its deputy general counsel Detra Lynn Mills.
And for Airespring, a midstream service provider that works with Verizon, AT&T and other telecom giants, calls went down, then bounced back according to its general counsel Rod Rummelsburg.
“Airespring’s customer base consists of businesses, so its total call volume in March was somewhat down,” Rummelsburg explains. “This [dip] is not a surprise in light of the safer at home ordinances.” The bigger surprise, he says, was the contract with a large Fortune 500 company in April to support call center staff—another unforeseen in a crisis marked by its unpredictability.
Still dialed in
Airespring and Round Room are considered essential businesses by any measure, but Mills says retail operations have been particularly challenging, especially as people and businesses upgrade phones and plans to provide better cameras, larger screens and more data for keeping in touch.
The stores, which are considered part of critical infrastructure, remain open, with reduced hours and shopping times reserved for senior citizens and people with compromised immune systems. Sales are also now being made “through our PCI-compliant wireless contact center,” Mills says.
“We got a complaint from a downstream provider about fraudulent phone messages selling a fake Covid-19 cure. With all the different fights we already have, we will not tolerate that kind of behavior.”
These virtual sales enable customers to get phones and accessories shipped to them, and there’s also curb-side pick-up, she adds.
At the same time, the philanthropic arm of Round Room, TCC Gives, has made the pandemic a focus, Mills adds. Last quarter it provided $160,000 in grants to 75 different agencies providing food or assistance to families and children, as well as 248 iPads to support e-learning for kids.
Though calls decreased from the 4.5 billion Airespring typically handles monthly, Rummelsburg was alerted to some he says he absolutely wanted to stop.
“Although it was not a direct customer of ours, we got a complaint from a downstream provider about fraudulent phone messages selling a fake Covid-19 cure,” Rummelsburg says. “With all the different fights we already have, we will not tolerate that kind of behavior.”
His written notice to an upstream provider helped stop the calls, and though he does not believe that’s the end of it, Rummelsburg does see the industry communicating and collaborating against these issues, he says.
While it’s hard to know the exact number or nature of the fraudulent calls, the Federal Trade Commission has issued 13 letters to Voice over Internet Providers service providers since the end of March, warning them against “assisting and facilitating illegal coronavirus-related telemarketing calls,” according to a statement on the FTC website.
The purpose of the calls is to exploit “fears about the coronavirus and perpetuate scams,” the FTC wrote in a press statement.
By contrast, Mills says fraud hasn’t increased with the sale of cell phones, though one fraudulent in-store purchase had recently led to an arrest in Pennsylvania.
“There are always those ‘would-be criminals.’” Mills says, “and what we see most often is social engineering where a fraudster calls a store and uses deception—perhaps posing as a government or law enforcement official—in an attempt to access company systems. So far, they have been disappointed with their efforts.”