Coast Guard warns boaters after “drastic increase” in false distress calls, which cost taxpayers

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MILWAUKEE -- Officials with the U.S. Coast Guard said Tuesday, July 11th the number of fake distress calls on the Great Lakes is on the rise -- so much so that it's spurred the agency to make a plea to boaters.

The Coast Guard has determined the false distress calls have been impacting command centers across all the Great Lakes -- including Lake Michigan near Milwaukee. That information was announced at a news conference on Tuesday afternoon.

"I wish we had an explanation," said Leanne Lusk, U.S. Coast Guard.

At the U.S. Coast Guard's Milwaukee Command Center Tuesday, Lusk monitored the lake.

"You'll see how overwhelming the radio traffic is for our watch-standers," said Lusk.

It's where calls for help are dispatched.

"We take those calls seriously," said Lusk.

Commander Lusk said the number of false or fake distress calls has increased three times from a year ago, but the reasons are unclear.

"The boating season certainly did start earlier this year, but even compared to last year, which was also a mild winter, this is a drastic increase from what we saw," said Lusk.

Lusk said roughly one-third of bogus calls are made by children.

"A lot of these calls are from people who do not properly operate their radio," said Lusk.

Either way, the Coast Guard said these so-called "hoax calls" put real victims and responders at risk -- because each is investigated.

"It can push the limitations for what we allow them to operate on our platform. If it's at night, that's an additional risk," said Lusk.

The Coast Guard is warning boaters. Knowingly making a false distress call is a felony offense. The cost is another factor. Sending a crew out to investigate costs taxpayers about $4,000 per hour.

The cost increases dramatically if a Coast Guard helicopter is deployed -- upwards of $16,000 an hour -- which is important because the Coast Guard does work to recoup those losses from offenders.