News & Analysis

Truecaller Becomes Smarter – But Why? 

No! We aren’t questioning the existence of spam blockers, but those that necessitate it

Have a smartphone, get used to spam calls. Of course, there are two types of such callers – those that get paid to be a pain in your arse and others who steal your data and have you running from pillar to post to retrieve the money they steal from your banks. We bet you’ve heard of District Jamtara in Jharkhand – the phishing capital of India. 

Into this milieu steps a company called Truecaller that does over $41 million in sales within a quarter by blocking spam calls, both on Android and iOS and more recently on the desktop. Today, the company claims to be blocking up to 40 billion spam calls annual for over 375 million smartphone users. 

All because our mobile phone numbers somehow reaches the hands of spammers (at one time we referred to them as tele-marketers) through multiple means. Ever filled up a jackpot price coupon while driving down a mall’s parking lot? Or shared your Aadhar card at a photocopy store? Well, these are some of the easy ways to capture mobile numbers. 

Truecaller adds its own AI into the mix

Since access to our credentials is very easy and unsolicited calls have become cheaper over the years, small mercies for apps such as Truecaller. The company has introduced a “Max” update for its premium subscribers on Android that uses AI to block calls that do not come from an approved contact or one that AI believes is spam.

How’s that different from what was happening all this while? The blocking and other actions used to be guided by how numbers were listed on Truecaller’s database with some support from active screening by individual users. This update is only for Android as Apple doesn’t allow Truecaller to check callers’ spammer status to block them on iOS. 

Truecaller faces TRAI pressure 

And in case you’re wondering why the new update has turned up, there are two reasons. The first one is obviously the AI-led showboating while the second, and far more important one, is their falling revenues. Why? Because India is Truecaller’s biggest market and TRAI wants a caller-ID service across all networks that could make call blocking redundant. 

Of course, privacy aficionados are opposing TRAI on grounds that it could put the data into the hands of telecom providers. But, for Truecaller, such a move could result in the proverbial death knell. The company believes that people won’t worry about missing calls from unknown numbers so long as they’re protected from irritating telemarketers.  

Can telcos themselves block off calls?

Which now brings us to the question of why can’t telcos themselves find a solution to this? This author has been using VI for several years and under the DND (do-not-disturb) feature request, there’s an option to block all calls that aren’t on the phone directory. As simple as that – and one can confirm that it works every time – on an iPhone! 

In fact, TRAI brought about the DND bit in order to clamp down on telemarking and other forms of unsolicited calling. They had directed the telcos to have the rules enforced in case a customer so desires. However, there would obviously be no publicity around this measure because the more calls we receive, the more money telcos make! 

Of course, there is a premium cost for using such features as Truecaller charges between $9.99 a month to $99.99 a year based on factors such as number of users covered etc. The latest offering offers subscribers a list of calls that can be potentially blocked that includes both domestic, global, hidden and unknown numbers outside of the contact list.

Just so that readers are aware, this isn’t the first time AI features on Truecaller as there is already an AI assistant that screens calls to identify why the user was called. There is also cloud telephony and call recording that are beyond the scope of AI.  Which brings us to the moot question: Why waste so much effort on a product that can be shut off completely?