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Amber Alerts on Your Cellphones: What You Need to Know

| February 19, 2014
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An August 2013 Amber Alert as it appeared on an iPhone.

An August 2013 Amber Alert as it appeared on an iPhone. But this image does not capture the screeching noise that went along with the message.

[Editor's Note, Feb. 19, 2014: This post has been updated from the original published Aug. 6, 2013.]

It’s an increasingly common occurrence: You’re at home watching TV or out enjoying a quiet dinner when suddenly your cellphone lights up, vibrates and sounds a nerve-rattling alarm. It’s all to announce an Amber Alert, and it can be extremely unsettling.

The automated cellphone alerts have been in place since Jan. 1, 2013, and were first used in California last August after a murder and kidnapping in rural San Diego County. In that case, a man was accused of killing a woman and her 8-year-old son, abducting her 16-year-old daughter, then fleeing with the teenager to Idaho. FBI agents shot and killed the suspect in that case, James Lee DiMaggio.

An Amber Alert issued while DiMaggio was believed to be driving his kidnap victim north was startling, to say the least. Craig Rosa, a producer for KQED Science, told us he was in his car with his wife when both phones started screaming “with an alert 10 times louder than any other alert on the phone. We had no idea what it was.” It was especially loud since his wife’s phone was connected via Bluetooth to the car’s stereo.   “Almost ran off the road trying to shut the things off,” he said.

Just last week, on Feb. 11, an Amber Alert was issued after an alleged carjacking and kidnapping were reported outside a Safeway in Oakland. It was canceled the next day after police concluded that the three people involved all knew each other and that a female adult had been mistaken for a teenage girl.

The system also can send out other types of alerts. For example, alerts were sent out on the East Coast to warn people during Hurricane Sandy.

Here’s more from the Associated Press on the cellphone Amber Alerts and how to control them.

WHO GETS THEM?

Most people with newer phones have the emergency alert system automatically activated. The new Amber Alert system replaces a prior “opt-in” system that went offline Dec. 31 and alerted about 700,000 people who had signed up nationally.

The messages are geographically specific, going to people within the reach of a particular region’s cell towers. So, a person vacationing in Los Angeles might receive a text, whereas someone with a California number visiting Boston would not.

Participating service providers include AT&T, Cellcom, Cricket, Sprint, Nextel, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, Verizon Wireless and Bluegrass Cellular, said Amy Storey, a spokeswoman for CTIA, a wireless industry association.

WHAT DO THE ALERTS LOOK AND SOUND LIKE?

They look like text messages but are free, and sent over a system administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The phone will go off with a high-pitched roughly 10-second tone and vibrate multiple times. The messages are limited to 90 characters. If you silence your phone the tone will not go off, but you’ll still see the message on your screen.

HOW DO I TURN IT OFF?

To turn off the alarms on many phones, you can opt out under your phone settings or send a text message to your service provider. Contact your service provider for more details.

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  • Nick

    Geographically specific? I live 500+ miles away from the town in question. If it was a natural disaster I could understand the alert, but a kidnapping?! I suspect many people have just opted out of a useful service due to the lack of targeting.

    • Kymberli Zee

      They believed the suspect was headed to Canada traveling from San Diego. Meaning he would have to pass through most of the rest of that state to get there. The alert was state-wide.

      • Nick

        Fair enough, and great context to have. How fast is a Nissan Versa – over what sort of distance were the police setting up road blocks? Those are the sorts of distance (or double or treble) most people would find such a message broadcast to meaningful. Expand over time if it’s required. For this type of system to remain relevant and used by the wider public people can’t consider these critical messages to be ‘spam’. That’s a much wider concern to me. From a dubiously informative straw-poll in my office today – about 20% of people have now shut off the service. That’s scary.

        • Kim

          The alert came days after the actual kidnapping happened. Road blocks likely would not have really done much.

    • Karla EM

      The suspect hasn’t been found – so there’s no point for it to be “specific”. This information needs to get out before the person has a chance of traveling those first couple hundred miles.
      I hope that for the sake of these and other victims I hope you consider talking to your co-workers to change their minds.

  • Philafiily

    Got it, think it’s a good idea, BUT … not enough info, and my carrier, Sprint, didn’t send it as a text message. I didn’t have my reading glasses on at the time, and tried to go to my text messages to review it, but it was in “alphabet heaven” so to speak. Also, the alert contained the car car info, license plate and who was missing. ID’ing the driver as a possible murderer would have been nice to know.

    • Kymberli Zee

      The alert system has a limited number of characters they can use. The information went out to the media before the alert was sent providing more information than the limited alert system could provide.

      • Vicki Booth

        This system is a gift. We need to appreciate it. Amber alerts save lives. If this was an alert for your child, or a child that you knew, wouldn’t you want it to go out to as many people as possible? As for the comments about children receiving these, either the children are old enough to get them, or their parents should be carefully monitering their phones anyway. An adult is paying the bill. The phone companies have no way of knowing who is actually using the phone. It is not the responsibility of the phone company to make sure that your child does not get amber alerts.

        • Aerin

          I don’t think anyone minds getting a free text with information but the alarm that went off should be for something like an emergency such as Earthquake or Tornado Warning. I was in bed there was no need for me who was hundreds of miles away at home in bed getting a shrilling terrifying alarm like that. It made me quickly deactivate the warning. They should have stuck to text only. We all read our phone texts it’s better than some weird msg telling me about something in a town that I have never heard of.

          • Mandy

            last time i checked missing children were an emergency….

          • Aerin

            Yeah and me being woke up in bed is going to make me run out searching for a lost child hundreds of miles away? Like I said unless my house is about to explode do to a force of nature they should text me not make an alarm go off, Alarms are for things like bombs, earthquakes and that sort of thing. Children are lost everyday and bad things happen everyday. If they want to be effective they should text people so they have the information on their phone so say the next day I see a license plate I can check my text. I’m not going to remember what was said over an alarm that woke me up so late. What they have now done is made thousands of people De-activate this alert instead of use it due to the over use of it and the loudness of it.

          • waraji

            Yes, but what if someone in my family were having an emergency would they be able to set off a siren on my phone? No.

      • Philafiily

        I understand, and don’t expect a lengthy description. “Suspect Armed” or “Suspect Dangerous” isn’t that many add’l characters. Thank you for replying, Kymberli.

  • Monica Murphy Alatorre

    Thank you for posting this article. My two sons, age 12 and 14, got these alerts last night on their non-smart phones. I was annoyed that this kind of news was going straight to my kids without my consent or knowledge. My husband and I did not get the alerts on our smart phones, which are all on the same account.

    We immediately wanted to find out how to stop these…and this article delivered the info right to me, which I greatly appreciate.

  • Jeff

    oh.. thanks for the post.. ive been wondering what the amber alert was since it appeared on my phone

  • Robert

    I received one last night, one this morning, and two tonight that were within 7 minutes apart. The idea is great, implementation is horrible. I do not need to be spammed with it every 10 minutes. Now I have to turn it off

  • Karla EM

    I can’t be the only person that’s annoyed by people’s “threats” to turn off their emergency messages just because the first time it was used wasn’t perfect.
    It might not be perfect or convenient, but I’m sure that as the program is improved it will be less “annoying.”

    • Ruby

      I had to turn my amber alerts off for the time being mainly because I got sent the same message 16 times within the span of an hour.

      I’m glad we have the amber alert system, I really am. They just need to make sure the same message doesn’t get sent more than necessary, otherwise people (like me) are going to feel like they have to turn their alerts off for a while.

    • waraji

      You are annoyed because people are annoyed ?

      • Karla EM

        In short: yes :-)

        • Kyle Ankney

          Stuck up floozy

    • Kyle Ankney

      You are. :/ noone cares. What about the children in this world that are raped every day. Who cares about them?? Noone bc u guys are all worried about blogging about who honestly cares. Lol. Go create a friggen program nation wide that deals with your problems and maby someone thats bot on the internet may give a flying pigz nose. Lemme tell u whats annoying woman. People like u. Why are u I3itching about it online??? Spend a life investment on something to “improve” what it is that u want improved. And watch it fail. Theres too many people in this world noone cares about your (or mine) imput about what annoys u.

  • Michael Kobb

    I understand that it’s a tough call, but sending the alerts late at night (a friend got it at 2:30am!) is really disruptive. Sure, there may be a handful of people up and about who might see the car, but what about all the people sleeping quietly at home who are startled awake. It seems like a little discretion would go a long way.

    I’ve turned off the Amber Alert functions until I hear that the state is improving their policies, then I’ll turn them back on.

    • km2012

      Me too.

  • kethryvis

    The only thing this doesn’t explain is why some people got the alert multiple times, all with the same information. If you’re sending an update with updated info then the multiple sends are warranted, but to send 2, 3, 4, 5 times in less than 24 hours with the same info is overkill, and will lead to people turning the feature off.

    i know i did, even before this started. i’m plugged into other news sources, so i’ll catch such alerts there. (i left the emergency alerts though since those i can actually act on unlike Amber Alerts.)

  • C.P.

    Amber alert sent at a simple TXT message would be far more effective and less invasive. After I was awoke by the shrieking phone, I tried to view the message, but it had disappeared. In the AM when I woke I tried to search my TXT field but it was not there. Only much later did I discover the obscure screen the info was hidden in. An overly complicated system that basically startled scores of people to little effect because they could not find the info by the time it was over. I spoke with many that still didn’t know why their phone even made the noise.

  • Ken Gaskins

    I keep my phone on vibrate all of the time. When I got the alert, the phone was on the dining room table and I was in the living room. The phone made no noise.

    I did get the TV Emergency notice about the abduction so I guess all is good.

  • Aaron Solomon

    It wasn’t the content that bothered me, it was the alarm that went along with it. It was the kind of thing one would expect to hear during a nuclear meltdown. It woke up both of my sons and scared the heck out of me and my wife. A text alert would have been sufficient. Like many others, we have unfortunately deactivated Amber Alerts on our phone, and won’t turn them back on until the approach is more reasonable.

  • BT

    I turned it off, also, but had to have my carrier walk through it and she had to look up the instructions.