Sandy Hook Boat Explosion: Was It an Elaborate Hoax?

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N.J. Yacht Explosion Hoax Distress Call Released
N.J. Yacht Explosion Hoax Distress Call Released (ABC News)

After several hours of intense searching, authorities were unable to turn up any sign of an incident or survivors from a reported yacht explosion in the Atlantic Ocean off Sandy Hook, N.J., which led investigators to believe that the distress call was a hoax -- one that cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars for emergency personnel.

A caller told the Coast Guard Monday afternoon that there had been an explosion on a yacht called Blind Date, and nine of the 21 passengers had received severe burns. All the passengers had gotten off the ship and were in life boats, the caller said. But after an extensive search, rescue boats and helicopters couldn't find a trace of the vessel or any victims.

A massive search and rescue operation was quickly launched Monday after the call came in. Multiple state and federal agencies, including the coast guard, dispatched seven helicopters to locate the boat and victims. Emergency medical technicians set up a staging area on the shore and nearby ships raced to the scene – but nothing turned up.

"This case is now being investigated as a possible hoax call," the Coast Guard said in a statement released Monday evening.

Officials say the search cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, The Associated Press reported. Making a false distress call is a federal felony with a maximum penalty of five to 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and reimbursement to the Coast Guard for the cost of performing the search.

Former FBI agent and ABC News consultant Brad Garrett says that that rescue teams are trained to swiftly spring to action when cases like this are reported.

"If you have a report like that and you believe it's credible, the Coast Guard in particular will scramble to go look for people in distress," Garrett said.

This isn't the first time such a hoax has happened, and it may be part of the trend of 'SWATing' pranks, where emergency personnel are called into action for fictitious events while the caller watches.

Last June, the Coast Guard spent 10 hours and $88,000 on a frantic search after receiving a distress call about a sunken sailboat -- also off of Sandy Hook.

Swatters are usually young computer hackers working alone or in groups, according to FBI officials. Though often their choice of target is calculated, it is sometimes completely random.

Kevin Kolbye is the assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Dallas office, which headed the first federal swatting case in 2007. He has been piecing together what appeared to be isolated swatting cases around the country since 2004.

"Once you catch a swatter or a group that is committing these crimes, they are usually responsible for multiple swatting incidents," Kolbye told ABC News, adding that they are often not motivated by money.

"Some of the motivation for swatting has been revenge against their victims or ego or bragging rights. There has been very little monetary gains in swatting," he added.

Perhaps the most famous swatting arrest was Matthew Weigman – aka the "Little Hacker" -- a blind 19-year-old hacker from Massachusetts, who is now serving 11 years in federal prison for swatting. Weigman was caught making threats to a Verizon security officer and attempting to hack a U.S. attorney's voicemail system. Weigman used the phone lines to place calls that resulted in SWAT teams descending on homes of innocent people.

On Tuesday the search will continue in Sandy Hook and beyond -- not for a boat in distress, but for the perpetrator of the hoax.

"You could be sent to prison, and you definitely could be ordered to pay all the restitution," Garrett said.

ABC News' Linsey Davis contributed to this report.