This week’s fraudulent call to the Coast Guard off the coast of New Jersey caused a tremendous uproar. On Monday, June 12, 2012, the U.S. Coast Guard released audio recordings of a distress call made by a man claiming to be the captain of a yacht that had exploded off the coast of Sandy Hook, N.J. The man calmly told the Coast Guard: “We have 21 souls on board, 20 in the water right now. I have three deceased on board, nine injured because of the explosion.” The call prompted the costly deployment of numerous responders, before it proved to be a hoax. The FBI in New Jersey has opened a joint investigation with the Coast Guard to locate the “Captain” who made the call.
Miami Maritime attorney Michael A. Winkleman appeared on America’s Newsroom on Fox News this week to discuss the matter.
According to the Coast Guard, at least two boat and four aircraft crews, in addition to New York and New Jersey fire and police units, spent several hours scouring about 638 square nautical miles of the Atlantic Ocean. In addition, more than 200 first responders assembled at mass casualty stations, and it is reported several good Samaritans assisted authorities in the lengthy search. Officials are now estimating that the total cost of the emergency response is in excess of $300,000, which is an alarmingly high figure.
Is this an isolated incident or a more common problem? There are no precise figures available nationwide, but officials estimate that there are approximately 300 hoaxes per year in the Northeastern United States. Not only are these hoaxes a tremendous burden on the U.S. taxpayer, they also put the first responders at risk and, perhaps most importantly, the fraudulent calls divert first responders from real search-and-rescue missions.
Knowingly and willfully making a false distress call is a felony under federal law, punishable by up to a maximum of ten years in prison, plus up to a $250,000 fine, as well as restitution of the costs expended in the rescue operation. Such stiff penalties raise the question: why would somebody do this?
One possibility is that it’s just someone looking for attention that loves to see the chaos he or she creates. Alternatively, it could be someone with a vendetta against the Coast Guard or other first responders. This is unlikely because such a person would (hopefully) be one of the first suspects in the investigation to find the prankster.
Another theory could center on drug runners looking to create a diversion. This is definitely plausible because what better way to divert law enforcement away from Point A, than to send them all to Point B?
The worst-case scenario would be if it were a person or organization with sinister motives looking to test the response time to emergency calls. This theory is particularly troubling because of the location of the recent hoax call just miles away from New York City. This event is a scary example of how easy it is for a single person to divert vast resources away from vulnerable targets in New York Harbor.
The Coast Guard does have a task force in place designed to detect and prevent fraudulent calls. But, how about creating a special identification number that would be used when one is making a distress call? If all pleasure craft and licensed U.S. captains would have to register with the Coast Guard and be given a unique identification number that would be requested in distress call scenarios, perhaps costly situations such as this one could be avoided.
Whatever the solution, this week’s unfortunate events off the coast of New York and New Jersey shine a spotlight on a big problem. One thing’s for certain, it’s no joke.
Watch the latest video at video.foxnews.com
By: Michael A. Winkleman