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What you should know about mobile Amber Alerts

  • Many wireless carriers offer the option for Amber Alerts, sent in text message form
  • The jarring sound alarmed California cellphone users early this week
What you should know about mobile Amber Alerts

California residents were caught off-guard this week when their cell phones blared an Amber Alert for two missing children, frightening some and rousing others from sleep with a jarring combination of screeching, beeping and tones.

Law enforcement authorities issued the alert Monday in the suspected kidnapping of Hannah Anderson, 16, and her brother, Ethan Anderson, 8. After the alert was issued, information was distributed to residents’ cell phones statewide through the Wireless Emergency Alert program.

Perhaps you have gotten a similar alert without even knowing your phone was capable of broadcasting them. The trend of mobile Amber Alerts is growing nationwide, and questions about their purpose are multiplying accordingly. 

What is an Amber Alert? An Amber Alert is a notification about a possible child abduction or missing child in the area. The program has been offered through various wireless carriers since 2005, and you may have heard or seen the alerts broadcast over other conduits such as radio or Department of Transportation highway signs. Typically, an Amber Alert includes information such as the last location of the missing child and any suspected vehicles involved or potential destinations.

In a wider sense, the Amber (America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) Alert program is, according to CTIA-The Wireless Association, "a voluntary partnership among law enforcement agencies, the wireless industry, transportation officials, broadcasters and other entities to activate an urgent bulletin to find abducted children."

What does an Amber Alert look/sound like? When you get an Amber Alert on your phone, you will definitely know. The sound is somewhere between a squeal, a siren and a series of tones. Even if you have your phone on silent or vibrate, or have enabled a "Do Not Disturb" or "Sleep" setting, your device may make this sound. The alert will appear as a text message including all pertinent information.

Why am I getting them? At the end of 2012, CTIA-The Wireless Association announced the transition from a Wireless Amber Alert program to a Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) program. Essentially, before the switch, customers had to opt-in to receive Amber Alerts from their wireless carriers, and they typically only received the alerts in designated area codes. Now, the WEA program sends messages to users within the area of the suspected abduction. For example, if a child in Orlando is abducted, all eligible devices within that area will broadcast the alert. A representative from the California Highway Patrol told HLN that Amber Alerts have previously been issued through wireless carriers regionally, but Monday's alert was the first to be broadcast statewide. It is of note that the WEA system also broadcasts other types of emergency alerts, such as severe weather warnings and imminent threat alerts.

How can I turn the Amber Alerts off? When the Amber Alert for the Anderson siblings was issued in California, many people didn't know how to react. Some were confused as to why they were receiving the alerts, and since it was early in the morning, others were irritated after being woken up by the startling sound. Some people labeled the alert system as a type of surveillance or invasion of privacy. That being said, you can opt out. While proponents of the system discourage disabling the Amber Alerts on your phone, you can do so by changing your phone's settings. On an iPhone, this option is listed under Settings>Notifications>Government Alerts. Here is a tutorial for Android and Samsung Galaxy phones. For other phones, similar options are most likely listed under your phone's Settings feature.

How can I get more information about the program? The U.S. Department of Justice has a detailed FAQ about the program, as well as specific guidelines for the issuance of Amber Alerts.

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