U.S. Coast Guard dealing with alarming rate of hoax calls

Calls are up 300 percent
Posted at 7:05 PM, Jul 11, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-11 20:05:58-04

The U.S. Coast Guard in Milwaukee is dealing with an alarming increase in hoax distress calls.

Coast Guard Commander Leanne Lusk said fake emergency calls are up 300 percent this year. The Coast Guard's biggest worry is a false mayday could redirect crews from a real emergency. Lusk guided media on a tour of their command center to find out what these hoaxes sound like.

"Mayday, I’m dying, I’m dying," said a Chicago man to Coast Guard Command Center crews.

Whether calls like these are believed to be fake or not, it is Coast Guard policy to respond to all of them until it is determined an emergency no longer exists.

"That means that we launch our boats, our helicopters, and our callouts going on the radio," Lusk said.

The Coast Guard's Lake Michigan location in Milwaukee has seen their call volume triple since last year.

"The majority of them are coming through the radios," Lusk said.

Lusk said by the end of June, they received 160 distress calls. More than half were deemed to be fake.

"I wish we had an explanation," she said.

A legitimate distress call is normally made by someone in danger on their boat, whether it’s taking on water, on fire, or lost in the fog.

"False distress calls range from someone saying ‘mayday’, ‘help’, ‘emergency’ or something to that effect while providing no additional information," Lusk said.

Surprisingly, Lusk said roughly a third of the false maydays come from minors.

"Children playing on a marine band radio either on a boat or on land," she said.

A similar incident happened while TODAY’S TMJ4 toured the command center.

"Drop anchor, over," said a child.

"Be advised, channel 16 is a hailing and distress frequency,” crews responded. 

False distress calls can redirect the Coast Guard, put first responders in unnecessary danger and cost taxpayers a fortune.

"More than $60,000 on average for each of these cases," Lusk said.

The Coast Guard works with several agencies to track down who's responsible. Those caught and prosecuted face up to four years in prison and a $250,000 fine. This spring, a Chicago man was prosecuted for fake emergency calls. He’s spending 6 months in jail and had to pay the Coast Guard more than $28,000 in restitution.