A number of months ago, I thought I was under investigation by the IRS. That was what my voicemail was telling me, anyway, and given the call came from a real number and the caller left a real name and a real call back number, I took it a little more seriously than the countless calls about my Google business listing and student loan debt.

If any of this sounds familiar, rest assured, you are not alone. The massive increase of spam robocalls is happening to everyone. According to a press release by YouMail Inc, a third-party robocall blocking software company, "the robocall problem exploded in 2018 with an estimated 47.8 billion robocalls made in the U.S., an increase of 56.8 percent over the estimated 30.5 billion robocalls in 2017."

In a February 2019 report by the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau at the Federal Communications Commission, it was estimated that consumer complaints about robocalls increased from 172,000 in 2015 to over 232,000 in 2018. The report also warned that half of all U.S. cell phone calls will be spam in 2019.

This all comes as technology has made it increasingly efficient to crank out millions of calls at the press of a computer key, and as my fellow Inc.com columnist Chris Matyszczyk points out, even mask the phone number with one that is similar to yours, and hence more appealing to answer, in a process call "number spoofing."

More than likely, you don't need stats to convince you that robocalls are a problem. You have a call log to prove that.

The good news is that the Federal Trade Commission this week announced that it had identified and fined four large companies responsible for billions of illegal robocalls. Companies were fined between $500,000 to over $3 million for their actions -- fines, I would argue, should be augmented by requiring the participants to listen to hours of robocalls as punitive punishment.

What does this mean for businesses?

Believe it or not, many companies still employ a cold-calling strategy for sales. I am working with one currently and have recommended a much more efficient alternative. More important, this recent bombardment of spam calls, some of which have illegally drawn money from unsuspecting callers who answer and believe they are talking to a real charity or Google Business Advisor, have perhaps put the final nail into the coffin of using the phone as a sales strategy.

And that is not such a bad outcome.

Generally speaking, while broad, overarching campaigns meant to reach tens of thousands of potential consumers can seem efficient, they are now highly ineffective. Personal relationships are the key to developing long term, loyal customers, as I have written in the past. This includes not only large-scale, business-to-business companies, but also business-to-consumer companies.

With demand among younger consumers being driven primarily by reviews and recommendations, it is more important than ever to determine strategies that can provide this experience -- efficiently and effectively. Phone calls are not only the worst way to accomplish this, spammers have made them practically harmful.

There are countless ways to improve your company's sales strategy (for another column), but for certain, they do not include cold-calling any longer. 

And that phone call from the IRS? If you too received this type of call, don't worry. The IRS typically does not leave phone messages telling that you might be liable for anything or that you may have a warrant out for your arrest. If you are in trouble with the IRS, trust me, they have more effective ways of getting to you.

How bad is the robocall problem? Leave it up to John Oliver to explain:

What do you think? Share your robocall experiences with me on Twitter.

Published on: Mar 28, 2019
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The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.