- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2003

Men and women pretending to be Red Cross officials have been calling families of troops deployed in Iraq, falsely telling them their loved ones were killed or are missing in action.
"I'm astounded someone could be so cruel," said Sue Richter, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, which has set up a toll-free hot line (888/309-9679) for people to report such incidents.
A spokesman for Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps base in San Diego, said he knows some families at that base have been victimized by these "absolutely false" phone calls.
"We have a crisis response center here, where families of [deployed] Marines can call to get information. The crisis response center started getting a few calls from some very distraught wives, who had been telephoned by people who identified themselves as Red Cross representatives and who told them their husbands had been killed," said the spokesman, 1st Lt. Dan Rawson.
The American Red Cross and the U.S. military say the Red Cross does not do casualty notification for the armed services. If a service member has been killed or taken prisoner or is missing in action, the family will be notified by a visit by one or two uniformed military officials.
"These calls are truly acts of personal terrorism. It's horrible that these people are using the good name of the Red Cross to carry out this cruel hoax," said Gayle Falkenthal, spokeswoman for the Red Cross in San Diego.
No one has a firm handle on exactly how many military families have received these disturbing phone calls. But Devorah Goldburg, another Red Cross spokeswoman, estimates the number of affected families at 20.
Ms. Goldburg said the first several calls were received by military or National Guard families in Michigan on April 2 and 3. Those were followed by calls to Alabama, upstate New York, Richmond and Owensboro, Ky., she said.
Another call was made to a family in San Antonio on April 9, and that was followed by a call to Selma, Ala., on April 10. "And then there were a couple of calls to Camp Pendleton," Ms. Goldburg said.
According to published reports, a similar call was made this month to a family in Delaware.
"Some of the callers were men; some were women," Ms. Goldburg said.
"They've been kind of random. It does appear they've been ratcheting down."
No one is sure how the callers are finding the military families. But Mrs. Richter said many hometown newspapers publicize a soldier's deployment.
"If someone gets a call like this, they should immediately discount it as a horrible prank," Lt. Rawson said.
He said that those making these hoax calls are committing a "criminal act."
In Riverside, Calif., such cases would be investigated as annoying telephone calls, which can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor. If convicted of making such a prank phone call, an individual could spend up to 6 months in jail, the Riverside prosecutor's office said yesterday.
Asked whether she believes the calls are being made by war protesters, Mrs. Richter said, "We have no evidence of that. I don't think those people would do something like that. In fact, I can't imagine anyone putting families at this high level of anxiety."
Ms. Falkenthal and Ms. Goldburg say the culprits may be difficult to track down. One victim reportedly had Caller ID, but the caller still could not be located.
"We're a humanitarian charity, and these [phone calls] are happening all over the country. Our best role is to educate people," Ms. Goldburg said.
"It would be nice if people cease and desist" from making these phone calls as a result of all the press attention, Ms. Falkenthal said.

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