Voice Platform and Support Network for Families of Missing and Victims of Crime
James Koenig's 18-year-old daughter Samantha Koenig has been missing since Feb. 1 from Anchorage, Alaska. Her distraught father posted his phone numbers on missing person flyers and now he is getting phone calls with fake leads from people looking to cash in on his pain.
"People come out of the woodwork for a reward," James Koenigtold ABCNews.com.
The Anchorage Police Department is investigating his daughter'sdisappearance and is being flooded with calls from "psychics" claiming to have information about Samantha.
"We've never had a psychic lead that turns out to be correct," Anchorage Police Lt. Dave Parker told ABCNews.com.
The targeting of Koenig, the attempts to capitalize on his suffering, the frauds that distract police, the demented late night pranks played on grieving parents are not unique.
Monica Caison, the founder and director of the North Carolina-based CUE Center for Missing Persons, has had clients get terrifying phone calls in the middle of the night with someone wailing "Mommy" and pretending to be their missing child. Caison said the mother had a "complete nervous breakdown" following the call.
Others fend off virtual attacks.
"It's a scary thing when you open up a friend request and it's your kids," Caison said. "For two seconds, your heart drops. For 10 minutes, you wonder if it's the thing you've been waiting for."
When a person goes missing, devastated family members are thrust into the unfamiliar roles of advocate, investigator, organizer and often suspect. They represent the missing at press conferences and vigils. But away from the public eye, these families become the targets for hecklers and unimaginable cruelties.
The families are tormented by letters from psychics, fake Facebook pages, anonymous letters and mysterious phone calls, among other attacks.
"It's very hard. I went through everything. My son was missing for two years, two months and 12 days," Dwayne Baker told ABCNews.com. "Psychics called me. I even received a DVD in the mail that a guy claimed he could talk to the dead and this was Travis' voice, with no return address. I don't understand why people would want to do that."
Baker's son Travis disappeared on April 14, 2007 in Taylorsville, N.C. He was last seen driving a 1998 candy apple red Camero to a friend's house. More than two years later, his skeletal remains were found and a man was charged with his murder.
"The psychics…" Dwayne Baker, 45, said before pausing to let out a long sigh. "I hate to say how many of those called me and said they knew where Travis was. My mother and wife went to one and paid them $100."
When asked what the psychic told them, Baker said, "Where Travis is at, 'Yeah, he's deceased, by the river, under the rock.' They just have no respect for someone in that situation."
Baker said that sometimes people arrested for other crimes would tell police that they had information about his son's disappearance, in an attempt to avoid punishment.
"That's so hurtful because you may not hear something for a while and then someone gets arrested and does not want to do time and then, all of a sudden, they think they've got a lead," he said. "You never give up hope to start with, but when someone gives you false hope, it's just not right."
Perhaps most painfully, sometimes the perpetrators aren't looking for money or a get-out-of-jail-free card, they are just being cruel.
"We were definitely caught by surprise. We had no idea of the cruelty out there," Karen Bobo, the mother of missing Tennessee nursing student Holly Bobo, told ABCNews.com.
Holly Bobo, 20, disappeared on April 13, 2011 when a man in camouflage dragged her into the woods near her home in rural Decatur County, about three hours from Nashville. Her brother Clint, 25, saw her go into the woods, but mistakenly believed the man was her boyfriend. Police have since called off her searches and have no suspects in her disappearance.
Karen Bobo said that after her daughter's disappearance, people started going on Holly's Facebook and taking photos of her in her swimsuit by the river during her summer breaks. The family later made the account private.
The Bobo family has also received "strange" and "hurtful" emails and letters.
"At the moment when you do receive a letter or something, there's an instant panic that sets in and then you get past that and you have to remember to keep focus where it should be and that's finding Holly," Bobo said. "It's extremely hard for me to comprehend what someone would gain from something like that."
The anguish takes a toll on families already coping with the disappearance.
Lisa Valentino's sister Allison Jackson Foy, 34, disappeared in 2006 and her remains were found with another woman's remains two years later. Authorities are still investigating the case and have had suspects, but no charges have been filed.
Valentino and her family experienced the torment of psychic phone calls, nasty blog posts and cruel emails and it took a toll on her family.
"It tears family apart," Valentino told ABCNews.com, speaking about how the experience affected her and her siblings. "What ended up happening for us is there became a lot of resentment. I never stopped talking to them, but we couldn't talk about the case. It was too contentious."
Even if the family knows the leads won't help, there is the temptation to follow them.
"If you're desperate and you're grieving and someone says they know something, you'll do anything to see if it's true," Valentino said.
Unfortunately, desperate families are all too familiar to Caison. "Families endure a lot behind the scenes that I don't think the general public realizes. People work off the desperation of these families," she said.
Caison guides the families through the disappearance of a loved one, involving herself in every aspect of the case, from the search itself to helping vulnerable families avoid these nasty pitfalls.
The attacks have gotten worse with the advent of the Internet and social media, according to Ernie Allen, the president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The ease with which people can remain anonymous online makes it difficult for families to defend themselves.
"In many ways, this is either simple cruelty for the sake of cruelty or it's just people doing things, mindless things, without really thinking about the fact that there are people harmed by it," Allen said. "The frequency with which this is done to these families is just an outrage."
When asked if there are any laws that protect the families of the missing, Allen said this is a gray area because while states do have laws regarding fraud and harassing communications, they don't always apply to this type of activity.
"A lot of this is just simply not traceable and a lot of it doesn't really rise to the level of criminal activity," Allen said. "It's just cruelty and insensitivity."
Despite the hardships and painful memories, some family members of the missing dedicate their lives to the cause. Dwayne Baker now works with the CUE Center.
"When I go to search for someone else's loved one, I'll give 110 percent," Baker said. "When I get in the field, I'll be the one that will go anywhere [Caison] needs anytime because I'm going to find that person, if possible, because I know that my boy is looking down thinking, 'Way to go, Dad.'"
Baker uses his own experiences to help families whose lives turn to turmoil when a loved one disappears and his message for others is simple: "Have respect for the families of the missing."