Coast Guard sounds alarm on hoax radio calls

Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg watchstanders on Aug. 13 heard a familiar voice come across VHF radio. Speaking on Channel 22A, the man made a series of threats against the Coast Guard, its personnel and its rescue crafts.

The same person reportedly made several previous hoax calls that began with a series of “mayday” messages. In other cases, the man requested the service “scramble all the jets, we are under nuclear attack.”

Fake emergency calls have been a problem for rescue agencies across the U.S., including the Coast Guard. Many aren’t immediately known to be hoaxes, spurring air or sea responses that waste time and money, and put Coast Guard crews at risk.

“The Coast Guard is committed to saving lives,” Capt. Bion Stewart, the commander of Sector North Carolina, said in late June after his crews received a series of phony calls. “When someone makes a hoax distress call, we are required to respond. This uses up our limited resources, which may reduce our ability to respond to mariners actually in danger.”

The North Carolina calls were traced to Pamlico Sound on VHF-FM channel 16, which is typically used for higher-level communications. The person on the other line said their vessel was “going down.” The same person is believed to have made other broadcasts requesting help or issuing mayday calls.

Similar messages were reported a couple weeks earlier in Sector Maryland-National Capital Region. Coast Guard officials in the sector said it suspects the same person was responsible for a “steady stream” of hoax messages.

“Hoax calls are not funny, nor are they clever,” Stewart said. “They are irresponsible and dangerous. Have no doubt, we are committed to identifying and stopping those who are making hoax calls.”

These calls can bring serious consequences. Federal law allows for up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines, plus the cost of the bogus search, for anyone convicted of making false distress calls. There are several cases where such people have faced prison time for their actions.

In 2015, for instance, a Vinalhaven, Maine, man was sentenced to a year in prison and a year of community confinement in addition to being forced to repay the Coast Guard $15,000 for a search spurred by false calls, the Coast Guard said.

In another instance, from 2014, an Atlantic Beach, N.C., man received an 18-month prison sentence and a $288,391 fine stemming from a false mayday call claiming he was abandoning ship near Cape Lookout in the Outer Banks. The Coast Guard, U.S. Marines and National Park Service scrambled to what they thought was a serious emergency.