Hoax call costs Newport, N.C., man more than $45,000

PORTSMOUTH, Va. – A U.S. district judge sentenced a Newport, N.C., man 60 months probation Tuesday and the court imposed restitution in the amount of $45,292.78 for a false distress call that resulted in search and rescue efforts from multiple agencies.

On Sept. 20, 2007, Joe D. Mills, Jr., used a handheld VHF radio from his front yard to fraudulently report a vessel taking on water to Coast Guard Sector North Carolina. The distress call was recorded and specifically referenced the Coast Guard. Coast Guard watchstanders could not reach Mills after he made the call and $45,000 worth of Coast Guard resources were used searching for him. Local fire and rescue also spent significant resources.

An investigation was launched after the vessel was not found and Coast Guard Investigative Services personnel determined the distress call was a hoax.

Maritime, hoax distress calls place unnecessary risk on the rescuers responding to the calls and interfere with legitimate search and rescue cases, which cost the American taxpayer hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

According to Section 303 of the U.S. Communications Act passed in 1934, any radio operator, whether at home, on a boat or in a business, is required to allow an FCC agent to inspect his radio equipment at any time. To deny this could result in a maximum fine of $7,000. The Studds Act was also passed in November 1990. This act states that a false distress call is a class D Felony, and a convicted hoax caller is subject to a fine of up to $250,000 and up to six years in prison. The caller might also have to reimburse the Coast Guard for the cost of the search. The caller is also subject to an FCC civil fine of up to $8,000.

If a hoax caller is not caught the taxpayers pay the cost of the search. Coast Guard C-130 aircraft cost about $4,244 an hour to operate, Coast Guard helicopters cost about $4,400 an hour, Coast Guard cutters cost about $1,550 an hour to operate and Coast Guard small boats also cost between $300 to $400 an hour to run.

The Coast Guard needs the assistance of the public to reduce hoax calls. This can be done by:

* Removing radios or locking them up when not in use

* Teach children that unauthorized use puts people in danger

* Report suspect hoaxers; U.S. Coast Guard Tip line 1-800-264-5980

All calls are confidential. Tipsters can remain anonymous if they choose.

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