Saving phone calls with verified visual caller ID (while killing a $100B spam industry)


Phone spam is a $100 billion industry, according to First Orion. The question: can a custom verified caller visual ID save phone calls?

In this edition of TechFirst with John Koetsier we chat with First Orion CTO Mark Himelfarb about phone spam, verified visual caller IDs, and more. There’s now so much phone spam that many people don’t pick up calls from unknown numbers. The question is, does that mean the end of phone calls as we know them?

There’s way too much voice spam, so most people don’t pick up calls from unknown numbers. First Orion thinks they can turn that around.

Get the full audio, video, and transcript of our conversation below …

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John Koetsier: Can a custom verified caller visual save phone calls? Welcome to TechFirst with John Koetsier. 

I don’t know about you, but I don’t take too many random phone calls anymore. In fact, I even turned that feature off of my phone a few months ago. It was just too high a chance for spam or somebody calling me pretending to be the IRS or something like that. Recently, of course, I had a doctor’s appointment and then there was supposed to be a follow-up with a specialist and I had to turn that feature off, but the problem is now I’m getting some calls that I don’t want.

Well, to see if there’s a solution for that, we’re actually going to chat with First Orion CTO, Mark Himelfarb, right now. Welcome, Mark!

Mark Himelfarb: Welcome. Thank you for this, thank you for having me. 

John Koetsier: Absolutely, it’s my pleasure. Hey, so phone calls are kind of getting a bad rep, right? How much phone spam is there? 

Mark Himelfarb: Actually a lot.

It’s a hundred billion with a ‘b’ dollar industry. And just to put that in perspective, that’s $375 on average, a person. So there’s a lot of phone spam, and we estimated that in 2020 about 40 to 50% of all calls, wireless calls, will be spam. 

John Koetsier: Wow. That is much larger than I thought it would be. What’s the consequence of that? I mean, I had a feature on my iPhone where I could turn off, I wouldn’t get notified about any calls that were not in my address book. And I assume others have done that as well. My wife never did that because she might miss an important call, which is very true. 

Mark Himelfarb: Right.

John Koetsier: But what are the consequences? What are people doing in response to that? Are they just not answering their phone anymore? 

Mark Himelfarb: Well that’s exactly what happened. The spammers actually conditioned us not to pick up the phone calls anymore. If the number is something we don’t recognize, if it’s not in our contact list, then we simply just don’t answer. 

John Koetsier: Mm-hmm.

Mark Himelfarb: Of course, the problem with that is, if you do that, you’ll be missing those important phone calls, right? 

John Koetsier: Exactly, exactly. Cool. Let’s talk about your solution and I’ll just bring up on the screen an example that I mocked up on your website. What is your solution? How’s it work? 

Mark Himelfarb: Right. So we have a branded call ID and branded call display.

Basically the way it works is a business would go online, log into a portal, they’ll set up a profile specific to their business and specific to the message that they want to send, and the ID that they want to have the consumer see on the screen.

And when you get the call, you’ll be seeing a display similar to the one you have, with the right branded logo, graphics, rich experience, and even some response actions in some cases.

John Koetsier: Wow.

Mark Himelfarb:  Certainly as a user, you can then be able to answer or do other things as you wish.

John Koetsier: Yeah. So, I mean, for the one that I put up there, I put up, hey it’s from Flyingly, some fictional airline or whatever that you guys had set up in your demo maker. And I said, ‘We found your child in Terminal 3, where can we bring her’ right? And you’re going to answer that call, right?


Mark Himelfarb: Absolutely, absolutely.

John Koetsier: That may be a spam call, it could even be possible, but you’re going to answer that call, especially if you can’t figure out where Susie is.

But how does that work? Does that require special software on my phone, on anybody else’s phone? 

Mark Himelfarb: So the branded called display does require an app, typically on the phone, and that app will contain some software from First Orion that would enable you to be able to receive those calls. Now, the branded call ID, which is a different version of the same service, allows you to see a 15-character display on your phone [and] does not require any software at all. Same principle, the brand would go online, create the information about the brand that they want to display — it could be something like a lost and found, or it could be your Rx refill or whatever it is — and then you as a consumer would see that information on your screen when your phone rings. 

John Koetsier: So Android, iOS, works on both. 

Mark Himelfarb: Works on, mm-hmm.

John Koetsier: How’s that work technically, because that’s interesting, I didn’t know that an app could basically take over the calling functionality from the main iPhone app. On Android, many things are possible. On iOS, it’s a little more challenging. How does that work? 

Mark Himelfarb: So, essentially what we do is, we do the same thing you would do as a user, right? You create contacts, think of it the same way.

We essentially have a special technology that allows us to create contacts on your phone, but only for a very specific period of time, only for the duration of the call.

When the call is over, we can remove the contact from your phone, so it doesn’t stay there forever — unless you want to save it, which is up to you.

John Koetsier: Interesting. And it works similarly on Android and iOS? 

Mark Himelfarb: Very similar. The details of the technology are slightly different, but the overall view is exactly the same.

John Koetsier: So that basically uses the same onboard functionality that when my mom calls, her picture shows up. 

Mark Himelfarb: Absolutely, absolutely. 

John Koetsier: Interesting, interesting. So obviously there are some challenges here, right? I mean, you don’t need iOS, or you don’t need Apple’s permission. You don’t need Google’s permission.

But you do need a significant percentage of people to install your app, but anybody who installs your app is immediately able to get those types of things. How are you going to get a significant percentage of people to install that? 

Mark Himelfarb: Outstanding question. Well, here’s the best part, we distribute our software as an SDK. And so any app out there in the market can simply embed the SDK, right? And so you probably already have apps with the companies that you [do] business with, whether it’s a pharmacy, whether it’s a bank, whether it’s a delivery company, right.

So those apps will have the SDK in them, and once the SDK is in the app, that’s all you need in order for you to be able to have that rich experience.

John Koetsier: Interesting! So maybe a cellular company, a carrier or something like that, could install the SDK and offer that as a service? 

Mark Himelfarb: Yes. I would think, John, that probably a better way may be an OEM kind of play where an OEM would have installed the SDK into their dialer. I think you could see that as a sort of a similar experience. So that certainly is an option. Now, with the branded call ID, the carrier is a part of the equation, right, because a 15-character display does come from the carrier. 

John Koetsier: Yes, okay. Is this spoofable? I mean, this would be amazing to spoof if you’re one of those bad guys making those billions of dollars there, you know, you’d want to spoof this and it’s your ‘doctor’ calling, it’s your ‘bank’ calling … 

Mark Himelfarb: Right.

John Koetsier: …  we found your credit card, whatever. They’d love to get in and do that sort of thing. What’s the security around it?

Mark Himelfarb: Well, so as you know, First Orion’s been in this business for about 11 years, almost 12. And we are also providing the call protection as well as call enhancement, so we know how to prevent spoofing. And so yes, there’s some very sophisticated anti-spoof technologies built into this. 

John Koetsier: Excellent. Good, let’s talk about the impact. If somebody adopts this technology, makes it available for their users, their customers …  what’s the impact on pickup, those sorts of things?  

Mark Himelfarb: So here’s some numbers for you.

So we are seeing up to 200% increase in first-call pickup rates. So first-call pickup rates, again, is that very first call that the brand makes to you about that specific item or that specific service. That’s huge, 200% increase. 

John Koetsier: Interesting. Okay, good, good, good. And you talked about, I hadn’t known this previously, but you talked about there’s some cases where you can have some actions, sudden dynamic actions, right, on this kind of response screen that we’ve been showing.

What kind of actions are you talking about? 

Mark Himelfarb: So the simple example, and there are a few different options, the simple example is, you can embed URLs into this display. And so we can actually work with the phone in such a way that the consumer will be prompted to tap a link or do something else, whatever is relevant to this conversation. There’s some other technology that allows us to do other things as well, but it’s a little bit more involved. But URL interaction is probably the most ubiquitous, just put it this way. 

John Koetsier: Okay, okay. Now talk to me about First Orion. You said you’ve been around for about 11 years. Where are you with this technology? How new is this, and who’s using it? 

Mark Himelfarb: So we’ve been in business, as you mentioned, 11, almost 12 years now. We have both the call protection and the call enhancement sort of sides of the house, and this particular technology has been in production since 2016. We have a few different customers, this is actually a global offering, so this is not just to the U.S. or North America. So just a couple of examples for you.

One is Keno, it’s a carwash app in the UAE. Believe it or not, it’s a big deal in the UAE, you get fined if you don’t have your car washed. 

John Koetsier: Hahaha.

Mark Himelfarb: So it’s a big business. Yes, yes. It’s very interesting, we do have an office in Dubai as well. And so that’s one customer, and they’re also franchising out to other regions as well. And then the other one, just another example for you, is Globe Life, which is a U.S.-based company, it’s an insurance company. 

John Koetsier: Excellent.

Mark Himelfarb: So again, sort of the gamut of different industries.

John Koetsier: Excellent. Well, it’s pretty interesting to me. If I knew for sure who was calling and a little bit about why they were calling — if they just, you know, ‘we have an investment for you we’d like you to take a look at,’ I don’t want to take that call from my bank, but if they discover that I’m being defrauded then I’ll take that one — I would actually pick up more phone calls.

Well, Mark, thank you so much for spending some time with us. 

Mark Himelfarb: Absolutely. 

John Koetsier: And everybody else, thank you for joining us on TechFirst. My name is John Koetsier …  really appreciate you being along for the ride. Hey, you’ll be able to get a full transcript of this conversation pretty soon, couple of days, maybe a week, at The story on Forbes will follow shortly thereafter, and of course, the video lives forever on YouTube.

Thanks for joining, maybe share with a friend. Until next time …  this is John Koetsier with TechFirst.