U.S. Coast Guard sees increase in hoax distress calls - WSFX - FOX Wilmington, NC

U.S. Coast Guard sees increase in hoax distress calls

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Officials in the U.S. Coast Guard report they are seeing an increase in hoax distress calls. There were two hoax calls in the state of North Carolina in 2013, and so far in 2014 there have been seven.  That is the highest number in at least the past four years.

"There is no rhyme or reason to it. Obviously in the summer you tend to get more, sometimes, this is just pure speculation, but it could be copycat crimes and that's what we are trying to put an end to," said Cpt. Sean Murtagh.

He said he wants the public to know hoax crimes are a felony offense and will not be taken likely. If convicted you could face up to six years in jail, have to pay up to $250,000 in criminal fines and up to $5,000 in civil as well has having to pay agencies back for using resources. It also puts lives at risk.

"The search when no one is in distress puts an undue risk on the lives of the first responders," Lt. Lane Munroe said. "When we send resources to a broadcast for a distress that isn't true we put first responders lives at risk, we divert assets that would otherwise be available for another search and rescue case, we also incur a large financial cost for the government and the taxpayer," Lt. Munroe said.

Just this week Homer Lewis Blackburn was sentenced for making a hoax call last October. "Mayday, mayday, mayday…I'm in Cape Lookout and my boat is sinking," he said in the hoax broadcast. The Coast Guard immediately responded sending boats in the water and calling multiple other agencies in for assistance.

"It was late at night, and the weather was pretty severe," Lt. Munroe recalled. He said crews searched into the night and the next day. Days later they learned the call was a hoax.

"We may have to go and search for 1 to 3 days and may never know it was a hoax until someone notifies the Coast Guard and reports that someone admitted to making a false broadcast," Lt. Munroe said. He said the false calls can be harder to track since they usually come from a radio and not a cell phone.

"Hoax calls or false calls of distress to the Coast Guard are one of the most difficult and time consuming investigations for us to conduct," Lt. Munroe said.

In one recent Onslow County case, Special Agents said it took three years to track down those responsible.

"They were using Channel 16, the Coast Guard channel, after drinking alcohol and were done hunting and were calling the Coast Guard. ‘Mayday, mayday Coast Guard' and then they would watch the Coast Guard helicopters as well as the Marine Corps helicopters fly over," said Special Agent Rick Vachon. "It took three years to catch them."

Officials are hoping to put end to the trend, by reminding people of the harsh penalties and how it impacts others. They also said guardians can be held responsible for the actions of their minors. 

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