The rise of robocalls, in six charts

FTC data provides insight into one of the country’s most complained-about problems

They come in all shapes and sizes: the free vacation giveaway, the important message about your credit card account, the “Hello, can you hear me?” trick. More Americans than ever are reporting issues with unwanted calls, and as anyone with a cell phone can attest to, the issue has become increasingly prevalent in recent years.

The Federal Trade Commission, a federal agency responsible for protecting American consumers from “unfair and deceptive practices in the marketplace,” is one of the government entities responsible for preventing unwanted phone calls. The FTC’s primary tool for doing this is their National Do Not Call Registry, a database of phone numbers that are intended to be removed from telemarketing lists.

However, as the FTC admits, a registered phone number is not exempt from all unwanted calls. The agency has reported a significant increase in the number of illegal sales calls that bypass their registry, particularly in the form of automated robocalls, as internet-powered phone systems have made it cheap and easy to make illegal calls from anywhere in the world. State law enforcement agencies, Congress, and even John Oliver are sounding the alarms against the scammers invading American phone lines.

The FTC makes many data sets available to the public, among them a variety of files from its Do Not Call registration and complaint database. This includes information about the number of phone registrations, when unwanted call complaints are made, the breakdown of robocall complaints compared to those about traditional human callers, and the topics of these phone calls. An exploration of this data provides some insight into an increasingly familiar issue.

Below are six facts revealed by an analysis of the FTC Do Not Call data.

1) More Americans than ever are signing up for the Do Not Call Registry

The number of registered phone numbers per capita reached a high in 2018, at 71,921 registrations per 100,000 people.

According to the FTC, the Do Not Call Registry opened in 2003, and reached 10 million phone numbers after four days. Today, the Registry has surpassed 235 million total registrations.

2) More robocall complaints are made in May than any other month

We are currently in peak robocall season. According to the FTC data, the most complaints about robocalls were made in May during fiscal year 2018 (the fiscal year, which runs from October 1 to September 30, is the accounting period for the U.S. government and the timeframe for which the FTC data is published). March was the most popular month for unwanted calls from “live callers,” or real people.

December was the month with the fewest call complaints about both robocalls and live callers.

3) The share of Do Not Call complaints about robocalls is increasing

During fiscal year 2014, just over half of all Do Not Call complaints (54 percent) were made about robocalls, compared to 46 percent about live callers. That share increased to two-thirds robocalls in 2018, a five-year high.

4) Consumers in some states register their phone numbers at higher rates than others

The top 5 states (plus D.C.) ranked by per capita registrations are New Hampshire, Washington D.C., Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Maine.

The states with the least per capita registrations are Alaska, Texas, Mississippi, Hawaii, and South Carolina.

5) The increase in Do Not Call Registrations is happening nationwide

Though Do Not Call registrations are more concentrated in some regions, the increase has been nationwide. Between FY 2014 and FY 2018, every U.S. state has seen a per capita increase in Do Not Call registrations.

The states with the largest percent increase in per capita registrations over this period are West Virginia, Indiana, Mississippi, Wyoming, and Vermont.

6) Robocalls target some topics more frequently than live callers

When making a complaint to the FTC, consumers have the option to note the topic of an unwanted call, and some topics are much more heavily favored by robocalls than others. Calls about reducing debt, working from home, and “imposter” scams — when a scammer pretends to be someone a consumer knows in an attempt to be sent money — are all more likely to come in the form of robocalls. Calls about warranties, technical support, home improvement, and utilities are more evenly split between robocalls and live callers.

The above charts were made with Flourish. The code for the data analysis is available on GitHub. The FTC data sets are available here.