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Federal Trade Commission: To Combat Robocalls, 'Just Hang Up'


And the Federal Trade Commission is trying to combat the rising number of illegal automated phone calls. Patty Hsue is an attorney at the FTC who leads that effort. Welcome to the program.

PATTY HSUE: Thank you very much for having me.

CORNISH: So we heard a little bit about the specifics of how these calls work, but how big is the problem? Can you put a number on the scale of robocalls like this?

HSUE: Sure. It's a huge problem from the Federal Trade Commission's perspective. It is the No. 1 consumer complaint that we receive. On average, we receive about 170,000 complaints every single month about robocalls.

CORNISH: And we mentioned criminal rings in that story. Do you have any specifics? Are there specific countries, or do you have any more details about the criminals who are behind this?

HSUE: I think, from our law enforcement perspective, the calls are coming from anywhere in the world. We do have certain countries that tend to be more prevalent than others, but the reality is, with technology being the way it is, it's very easy to send the calls from anywhere. And we do have a number of scammers that also come from the U.S. as well, which is where we have been able to do fairly effective law enforcement.

CORNISH: It seems like the technology is really advanced here. I mean, what is the government doing to try and combat the rising number of these calls?

HSUE: We are challenging the public to help create products that allow consumers to protect themselves from these bad actors. In our last challenge, Robocalls: Humanity Strikes Back, we asked the contestants to build something that allows consumers to block the calls on their phones and allows them to forward it to a crowd-sourced honeypot. So it's crowd-sourcing the robocalling information. Now, you may ask why is that last part so important - the call forwarding to a crowd-sourced honeypot. And for us, from a law enforcement perspective, getting that data on those robocallers is actually very useful for our law enforcement efforts.

CORNISH: And you called it a crowd-sourced honeypot.

HSUE: Yes, I'm calling it a crowd-sourced honeypot because, essentially, it means that the consumers can send us their robocalls.

CORNISH: Essentially, consumers send you copies of the calls, and then you look for clues within those calls to figure out where they might be coming from, what industries might be using them and who their customer targets are.

HSUE: Potentially. They're all things that we hope will be useful, but until we actually implement it, you know, the sky's the limit at this point.

CORNISH: So if you get a call that sounds like fraud, and let's say you don't get it together to send it to the honeypot, what should you do with that call? I mean, is there - do you just hang up? How do you handle it?

HSUE: Yes. Our No. 1 consumer tip for consumers, in terms of dealing with robocalls, is to just hang up. We don't want consumers to engage in any way with the robocallers. A lot of times when you get a robocall, you have the option of pressing one for more information or pressing two to ask to be removed from the list. And in either case, pressing one or two basically lets the robocaller know that it's a live person on the other line who's willing to engage, and that could lead to additional robocalls. So our No. 1 tip is just hang up.

CORNISH: Patty Hsue - she's an attorney with the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the FTC. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

HSUE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.