Hoax distress calls can cost lives, resources

Coast Guard District 8 NewsCORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Coast Guard Sector Corpus Christi suspended five searches in October suspected of being hoaxes.

Not every distress call is real, and a false mayday call can unnecessarily put crews in dangerous situations while wasting valuable resource hours. Approximately 80 man-hours were expended during the five cases. In total, Air Station Corpus Christi completed two searches with an HU-25 Falcon jet and an MH-65 Dolphin rescue helicopter, and a 25-foot Response Boat–Small was also used.

“We have spent a considerable amount of effort, money, and risk,” said Mario Gonzalez, a watchstander at Sector Corpus Christi. “We are searching for what seems to be someone playing games, taking away from those who might actually be in peril.”

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. If a hoax caller is not caught, the taxpayers shoulder the burden of the search. Coast Guard, federal, state, and local search and rescue partners’ aircraft and vessels are costly to operate. For example, a Coast Guard aircraft costs more than $4,000 an hour and Coast Guard small boats cost between $300 and $400 an hour to operate.

Under federal law, knowingly and willfully making a false distress call is a felony. Even if a child makes the distress call, the parents are ultimately responsible. The maximum penalty for making hoax distress calls is five to 10 years in prison, a $5,000 civil fine, a $250,000 criminal fine and reimbursement to the Coast Guard for the costs incurred responding to the false call.

Common hoax call sources:

  • Boaters trying to obtain a radio check are a common source of false distress calls. Mayday calls receive instant action from the Coast Guard, a concerned boater or both responding under the impression that the boater is in distress.
  • Some VHF marine band radios have a distress button feature that when activated emits a digital Morse code SOS signal. Improper operation of an automatic SOS feature, either by accident or on purpose, is a violation of law and endanger boaters’ lives.
  • Unsupervised children are also a source of false distress calls.
  • Adults intentionally transmitting false information for the purpose of entertainment or to launch a search.


The Coast Guard has taken steps to improve its capabilities to track radio distress signals by developing the Rescue 21 program. Sector Corpus Christi uses Rescue 21’s direction finding technology to minimize the search area for each distress call. The Coast Guard is then able to determine when a call is a probable hoax and reduce unnecessary search efforts.

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 hoaxes to the U.S. Coast Guard Tip line: 1-800-264-5980


All calls are confidential and tipsters can remain anonymous if they choose.

In October, Coast Guard Sector Corpus Christi responded to a total of 40 search and rescue cases, resulting in 54 lives saved or assisted.

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