Coast Guard see big jump in fake distress calls

Jul 7, 2017

Coast Guard boat
Credit Elizabeth Miller / ideastream

"Anyone there? Please, tell us - we're all tired and we're all hungry. Please come back!"

Fake distress calls placed via marine radio can sound completely identical to real ones.  The Coast Guard 9th District - which covers the Great Lakes - takes every call seriously.  But the agency has noticed the number of false distress calls skyrocket this year - to more than 160 calls compared to just 55 in 2016.

The 9th District's Christopher Yaw says hoax calls can greatly deplete resources needed for real emergencies.

"If we think someone’s in the water, that can launch a helicopter from one of our air stations," said Yaw.  "If it’s something that’s large enough, we could be launching coast guard cutters. Being that we have the shared border, that could even launch getting some Canadian assets involved."

The 9th district reports that some of these calls are made to intentionally deceive the Coast Guard and some are from kids toying with a marine radio.  People can face up to 6 years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines for knowingly making a false distress call, and Yaw says parents may be held accountable for the actions of their child.

Credit Elizabeth Miller / ideastream

The cost of search and rescue missions can add up, too.  The Coast Guard says helicopters could cost $16,000 an hour to operate, while boats run about $4,500 an hour.  The Coast Guard says on average the response to a hoax call can last 3 hours before it’s called off. 

Yaw says having even one boat out on a fake call can hurt the Coast Guard's opportunity to help someone actually in distress. 

"The time and the assets and the money aside, for people that may think it's funny or anything like that – the thought of someone losing their life over something people think is a joke…we don’t see the comedy in it."