Hoax Yacht Explosion May be Tied to 'Swatting'

Coast Guard air and sea assets conducting a search and rescue mission.

When the Coast Guard received a distress call June 11 about an explosion aboard a yacht about 17 miles off Sandy Hook, N.J. -- a call later determined to be a hoax -- it set in motion a massive effort by emergency responders that authorities say cost more than $335,000.

Twenty-one "souls" had been aboard the super-yacht Blind Date, the male voice said. Three passengers had died, he reported. Nine had injuries, including second- and third-degree burns.

He was on the bridge of the sinking vessel, standing in 3-{ feet of water, the caller said. The others were in lifeboats. Send help, he urged.

The mayday, being investigated by Coast Guard special agents and other law enforcement agencies, may have been an example of a practice known as "swatting," in which pranksters call authorities and give dramatic, phony details about a crime or emergency.

Swatters often report hostage situations, mass shootings, murders, and other large crises to spark a response from SWAT teams and hazmat crews. To make their 911 calls seem authentic, some hack into phone lines or "spoof" a phone number via a mobile phone app. The goal is for the distress call to appear to have originated from the address of the alleged incident, said Kevin F. Kolbye, acting special agent for the FBI in Dallas, an expert on swatting.

The FBI first noticed frequent swatting incidents in Texas a decade ago, Kolbye said. Now, there are as many as 400 a year nationwide, typically costing taxpayers from $2,000 to $10,000 per episode in unwarranted emergency-response services.

The trend is growing, aided by new technologies that make it easy to mask phone numbers and social-media sites where anonymous swatters boast about their exploits, he said.

"A lot of it is being done for bragging rights. They blog about it, post it, share it ... almost as a trophy," Kolbye said.

Swatters are usually male, in their late teens to early 30s, and are often social misfits, reclusive, and heavily into the Internet, according to Kolbye. The locations they give for the bogus incidents are sometimes chosen to harass particular victims, he said.

In addition to wasting tax money, swatting can have deadly consequences for first responders and terrified, unsuspecting victims when a team of highly armed law enforcement officers descends on a home while its occupants are eating dinner or asleep in bed.

More than 85 members of Congress signed a letter this month urging U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to review swatting cases and prosecute any breaches of federal law. It's "only a matter of time before somebody gets seriously injured," said the letter's author, U.S. Rep. Sandy Adams (R., Fla.).

One of the most notorious swatters, Matthew Weigman, a blind 19-year-old hacker from Massachusetts, was convicted in 2009 and sentenced to 11 years in prison after he and online "friends" staged about 300 bogus calls, including 911 calls that sent authorities to the homes of Weigman's hacking rivals. He is currently in the Allenwood Federal Correction Complex in Union County, Pa.

Because the recent New Jersey hoax was said to be at sea and to involve many casualties, an especially large number of emergency responders was mobilized, said Lt. Joseph Klinker, a spokesman for the First Coast Guard District in Boston.

In the Northeast, Klinker said, the Coast Guard responds to about 6,000 search-and-rescue cases a year and saves more than 350 lives. In New York City, North Jersey, and the Hudson River region, there were about 60 hoax calls last year; there were about 45 in South Jersey and the Philadelphia area. The maritime agency launched a half-dozen criminal probes, but none led to prosecutions.

On Sunday morning, the Coast Guard responded to another apparently unfounded mayday call, this time 12 miles off Cape May. In a brief radio call around 11 a.m., a man provided an approximate location of the boat in distress, but no additional information about the vessel or its passengers, according to online news reports. The Coast Guard helicopter crew found nothing at the location, and the search was suspended.

Officials have offered a $3,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person making the Blind Date call. In addition to having to repay the money spent on the emergency mobilization, the perpetrator could be fined $250,000 and face up to 10 years in federal prison.

"We've been performing these missions for 200 years, and our crews are constantly busy. Our mission is dangerous. That's why we have the tools in place to prosecute hoax offenders," Klinker said.

Six Coast Guard and police medevac helicopters were sent to sea to look for the Blind Date's passengers on June 11. Their mission was to fly them to mass-casualty staging areas in Newark and Sandy Hook, where more than 200 police, fire, and other first-responder personnel were assembled, according to authorities. The injured would have been triaged, then transferred to medical centers aboard 15 waiting ambulances and two large medical buses.

The crew of a "good Samaritan" boat near the reported explosion also offered to look for victims. But four hours into the search -- finding no sign of a sunken vessel and having determined that an actual Blind Date was safely docked in Florida -- the Coast Guard realized it had been duped.

"False distress calls like this tie up valuable assets like helicopters and boats and put our crews at risk every time, since we take every distress seriously," said Rear Adm. Dan Abel, commander of the First Coast Guard District. "They impede the ability of first responders like the Coast Guard and our partners to respond to real distresses where real lives may be in genuine peril."

Those investigating the Blind Date incident would not say whether there had been many leads. According to one report, the Coast Guard is looking into whether the hoax was related to one perpetrated last June. That time, a 33-foot sailboat was said to be taking on water near Sandy Hook. Four people had escaped in a dinghy, according to the caller.

A 10-hour Coast Guard search -- at a cost of $90,000 -- turned up no sign of the boat.

This article contains information from the Associated Press.

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