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Cellphone Amber Alerts Engage Public To Help Find Abducted Children

Hundreds of thousands of cellphone users across California received text messages and high-pitched alarms Monday night and Tuesday morning notifying them of an Amber Alert for two abducted San Diego County siblings — 16-year-old Hannah Anderson and 8-year-old Ethan Anderson.

Aired 8/6/13 on KPBS News.

Hundreds of thousands of cellphone users across California received text messages and high-pitched alarms Monday night and Tuesday morning notifying them of an Amber Alert. Law enforcement officials hope the alerts will help them locate two abducted San Diego County siblings.

Amber Alert For California

Hannah Anderson, 16 (L) and her brother, Ethan Anderson, 8, were allegedly abducted from the city of Boulevard in San Diego's East County on August 3, 2013 at 5 p.m.

The alert came after the body of their mother and a child were found on Sunday in the burning rubble of their East County home.

The deceased child remained unidentified, sheriff's homicide Lt. Glenn Giannantonio told reporters Tuesday night. "It is a possibility that it's Ethan,'' the lieutenant said. "It's a possibility that it's another child we haven't identified yet or don't realize is missing yet.''

CHP Officer Justin Howlett said this new ability to quickly engage the community in the search for abducted children can help law enforcement bring those children home safely.

Howlett said Amber Alerts through cellphones were launched earlier this year in Northern California and helped solve the case.

"A gentlemen was walking past the vehicle that was involved in the Amber Alert," said Howlett. "He didn’t think anything of it, but then his friend who had gotten the message on his cell phone told him about it, he remembered seeing the vehicle, called police and the police were able to recover the child."

Howlett hopes the alert for the Anderson children will have the same effect.

The notifications are part of the federal Wireless Emergency Alert program that are geographically specific. In this case, a Californian traveling out of state should not have received the alert, but visitors to California were likely alerted.

People with newer cell phones receive the messages automatically, based on their proximity to the emergency. There are no texting charges and the system does not track cell phones' locations, according to FEMA and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

In order to stop receiving the alerts, cellphone customers must opt out of the program by adjusting their cell phone settings.

An urgent search continues for James Lee DiMaggio, 40, the man suspected in the murders and setting fire to his East County home.

CHP officials believe DiMaggio is driving a blue 2013 Nissan Versa sedan, California license No. 6WCU986, and possibly fleeing to either Texas or Canada.

Anyone with information is asked to call Sheriff's communications at (858) 565-5200.


Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | August 6, 2013 at 9:45 p.m. ― 3 years ago

Is this really the best use of money and resources?

Hundreds of thousands of people (possibly even millions because the alerts were in LA and SD) get a text message in the middle of the night and the guy wasn't apprehended.

My text came through at 1:00 am and woke me up.

These types of emergency alerts should be reserved to emergencies impacting large populations like an earthquake or terrorist attack.

And Amber alerts are a joke anyway. They were created out of the hysteria over the extremely rare crime of stranger child abductions, but in reality nearly every one turns out no be an intra-family situation.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | August 6, 2013 at 9:51 p.m. ― 3 years ago

So one sentence says the system doesn't track cell phone locations, and another that it's geographic specific and even people,with out of state numbers will receive the alerts if they are in the area.


It's not possible to not track locations and make it geographic specific.

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Avatar for user 'jfabi'

jfabi | August 6, 2013 at 10:11 p.m. ― 3 years ago

Peking_Duck: As I'm sure you know, these AMBER Alerts aren't issued in high frequency—as with any sort of alert system, the more it's used, the more desensitized people become, which defeats its purpose as alerts are ignored.

WEA alerts are marked by the outgoing agency to be received in specific areas/cities via individual cell towers (ie, if there were to be a large emergency affecting only El Cajon, an alert could be issued from only cell towers in El Cajon)—thus they are geographically-specific.

The alerts do not discriminate with regard to phone numbers. Any and all equipped phones within range of the towers will received the alert, even if the phone is from out of state. The manner in which they are sent is similar to broadcast radio and television: one-way signals receivable by all—thus individual phones are never tracked.

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Avatar for user 'MaoTzu'

MaoTzu | August 7, 2013 at 5:52 a.m. ― 3 years ago

Government intrusion. Stay off my phone.

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Avatar for user 'benz72'

benz72 | August 7, 2013 at 7:46 a.m. ― 3 years ago

Is there a way to opt out of being 'alerted'?

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Avatar for user 'Mmikey'

Mmikey | August 7, 2013 at 8:10 a.m. ― 3 years ago

We got the alert while watching tv in a local channel, the voice quality was filled with ac hum . sounded like a last minute set up with no testing.

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Avatar for user 'sdreefer21'

sdreefer21 | August 7, 2013 at 9:22 a.m. ― 3 years ago

What is so intrusive? Is your sensitive sweater on? Does a simple plea for help offend your sensibility?

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | August 7, 2013 at 10:59 a.m. ― 3 years ago

The people who would be most useful are people driving as they are the ones most likely to see the car an we already have the signs on the freeway displaying this info so the texts are an overreach.

I wonder how many people dangerously checked their text message while driving to tea this alert?

I agree with Mao, government get out of my phone.

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Avatar for user 'benz72'

benz72 | August 7, 2013 at 12:06 p.m. ― 3 years ago

Per the LA Times article here,0,2684792.story

"All newer models of cellphones come wired to automatically receive the alerts, which means it’s more of an opt-out system. To opt-out of the emergency alerts, change your phone's settings for emergency alerts."

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Avatar for user 'CaliforniaDefender'

CaliforniaDefender | August 7, 2013 at 12:10 p.m. ― 3 years ago

I wonder if the suspect got the Amber Alert on his phone. Probably did and I would guess he is no longer driving a blue Nissan Versa because of it.

Good luck to law enforcement. I hope they catch the guy.

By the way, Duck and Mao, the US government has been recording, analyzing, and archiving all of your calls and texts for many years. Amber Alerts are nothing compared to the much more intrusive things the US government is doing to you right now.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | August 7, 2013 at 12:36 p.m. ― 3 years ago

CADefender, you know I have been critical of the overreach on the government into our phone records.

While I credit President Obama with much needed healthcare reform, gay rights, and sound economic policies I discredit the President for his overreach of intrusive privacy violations of American citizens, his continued bloating of the prison industrial complex including growing the defunct "war" on drugs, and his irresponsible use of drones.

The Amber alert issue is important though. These types of mass-message alerts can be vital in situations where large populations need to act - such as natural disasters or terrorist attacks.

By using these mass-messages for things that 99.999999% of those receiving the message have no personal liability to, we risk desensitization an the rendering of these types of messages ineffective when we need them during times of mass calamity.

By the way, good point about the alleged perpetrators getting a text - I didn't even think of that one!

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Avatar for user 'CaliforniaDefender'

CaliforniaDefender | August 7, 2013 at 3:57 p.m. ― 3 years ago


I know you have been. I just feel like we have bigger fish to fry than Amber Alert. If we didn't have Obama using the NSA to pry into our personal lives, I would agree with you about Amber Alert. But unfortunately it looks like no matter Democrat or Republican in the WH, they want to know exactly what we are doing, thinking, and saying all the time.

Washington DC is the greatest danger to our sovereignty and the future of our democracy. Not foreign terrorists.

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