Spike in hoax calls costs time and money


A Coast Guard 47-foot Motor Life Boat crew from Station Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina, responds to a call.


By Toby Tate

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Answering a call from a marine vessel under distress is one of the most important things Coast Guard personnel train for, but much like the spate of fake S.W.A.T. calls in recent times, there has been an increase in similar hoax calls to Coast Guard command centers in North Carolina and Virginia.

According to a press release from the U.S. Coast Guard 5th District Mid-Atlantic Command, watch standers at Coast Guard Sector North Carolina in Wilmington and Sector Hampton Roads in Portsmouth have been seeing a spike in the amount of traffic on VHF-FM channel 16 during the late fall, as well as an increase in suspected false distress cases reported on the channel.

"The primary areas of concern were the Pamlico Sound and from the Virginia area, as well," said Chief Petty Officer Jeremy Thomas, public affairs officer for Sector North Carolina. "A lot of times they come across in two ways. One will be a child's voice saying, 'Help me, Coast Guard, help me,' or, 'Mayday, mayday, we're sinking.'"

Thomas said the Coast Guard employs a system that utilizes line of site or triangulation to locate a signal's source.

"It picks up the radio frequency and is able to triangulate an approximate location of where it's coming from," he said.

According to Thomas, the Coast Guard's intelligence division said the calls are coming from radios in residential areas.

"We keep coming across these scenarios in the northern part of our areas of responsibility where these triangulations are coming from a land source. That's one of the big issues we've been finding," he said. "Our helicopters and small boats will go out and do searches, but can't correlate anything that is associated with what's being reported."

Thomas said the searches not only cost the Coast Guard time and money, they also put personnel at risk.

"When we hear a distress call, our job is to find that distress and to rescue people, and when we can't do that, we utilize our resources to continue searching for someone who may actually be in distress," he said.

There's been a steady upward trend in hoax calls for at least the last two years, Thomas said.

"It's just a matter of getting on the radio and making a call," he said. "It could be anybody."

Thomas said the goal of the public affairs office is to educate the public about the hazards of making fake distress calls.

"Say this happens during severely inclement weather and we're launching our Coast Guard resources and some of our crews get injured," he said. "That's our biggest fear. We don't want to injure our crews, because then how can we do our job when someone is actually in danger?"

According to the press release, a hoax distress call to the Coast Guard is considered a Class D felony and can incur more than $250,000 in fines and 10 years imprisonment, plus the cost of the search.

Thomas said that boat owners with children should assure that their kids are educated in responsible use of the radio.

"Channel 16 is the international emergency channel for communications on the radio, especially in the maritime world," he said. "We're always here to do our mission with regards to search and rescue. We'll do everything we can to protect the public and keep the maritime domain safe. We just need the public's help to ensure that we are not putting first responders at risk unnecessarily."

Anyone with information regarding a hoax call made to the Coast Guard is encouraged to contact the Coast Guard Investigative Service through the 5th District Command Center at 757-398-6390.