Amber alerts reporting missing children are no joke. But, in one mid-Missouri community that's exactly what has happened. An e-mail circulating the globe that says a teenage girl is missing from Rolla is a hoax, believed to have been initially created by kid pranksters. The e-mail began its journey around the world over two years ago, but officials at the Rolla Police Department are still bogged down by concerned callers. KRCG's Mallory McGowin talked with officials there who say they they just don't know what to do.
"Rolla Police, may I help you?"
"Yes, hi. I received an email..."
"Is it an amber alert for Ashley Flores?"
"One moment...it's a hoax."
The Internet hoax regarding missing teenager Ashley Flores was created two years ago. And in early 2007, the Rolla Police Department's name was attached to a fake e-mail alert after an honest mistake.
"One of our staff sergeants received it as an email," said Rolla Police Department Communications Chief Paula Volkmer. "And he believed it and thought he was doing the right thing by forwarding it to his contacts in order to get the word out that there was this missing girl."
And with his automated signature attached to that forward, Staff Sgt. Rick Williams and the Rolla Police Department became linked to the hoax. The e-mail was then doctored to say Ashley Flores was from Rolla and her family needed your help to find her. And like Staff Sgt. Williams, most people think forwarding that e-mail is the right thing to do.
And that's when the phone calls started...
"An amber alert on a missing child? Actually that's a hoax. It's not real."
"Hi there, I'm looking for Staff Sgt. Rick Williams."
"He's gone home for the day. Is this in reference to the Ashley Flores email?"
"Yes it is. I was just wondering...is it legitimate?"
"No, its not. Its a hoax."
"We probably average 10 calls an hour on a daily basis," said Volkmer.
And that's over a year after the e-mail began circulating. Volkmer says about 80 percent of calls for Staff Sgt. Williams are about Ashley Flores. Rolla Police had already received nearly 20 calls before I arrived at 11 a.m. one day last week. And they took another 15 or so while I was there. It has forced Rolla Police to hire an extra part-time receptionist.
All after hours phone calls at the Rolla Police Department are forwarded on to the dispatch center. So that means after business hours, any calls about the hoax have to be answered by dispatchers who are also responding to real 911 emergencies.
The calls come from all over the world: Canada, England, even Austria, Ukraine, and Bermuda. And now, Rolla Police officials don't know how to stop it.
They forward callers to an automated message to free up receptionists to answer more calls...
"Ashley Flores is not missing. Please do not forward this amber alert to anyone," the system tells callers.
And Volkmer says that's the lesson here: validate e-mails before you click "forward."
Rolla Police officials say to check the accuracy of e-mails that land in your inbox does not mean you have to call the agency. They urge people to use other resources, especially the Internet, to do initial fact-checking. One example Volkmers says: the website Snopes.com, which trys to validate rumors and myths worldwide.
Volkmer says this is also a lesson in being careful about automated signatures on e-mail forwards. She says they can clearly get you into trouble.