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How Do Cell Phone AMBER Alerts Work?

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

Cell phone AMBER alerts are becoming more common, but they're still catching many mobile users off guard. How exactly do they work?

Sending AMBER alerts to cell phones in a particular area is relatively new, but the system has been in place for more than a year now. Just this week, smartphone users in parts of Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma received such an alert, many for the first time, Wichita's KAKE-TV reports.

Here is a brief overview of the laws and programs which undergird cell phone AMBER alerts:

Wireless Emergency Alerts

The AMBER alert system is regulated by the federal government -- specifically the Department of Justice -- to disseminate information about abducted children. These alerts appear on electronic highway signs, in radio and television announcements, and as many cell phone users are now aware, on mobile phones as well.

Sending AMBER Alerts to mobile phones is made possible by the Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) program. This program allows public warnings to be sent to WEA-enabled phones across the country and is also utilized by agencies like FEMA to warn of dangerous weather or national emergencies. According to the DOJ, beginning in January 2013, all AMBER alerts are sent automatically through the WEA system to WEA-ready mobile phones.

However, this service does not cover all wireless users. According to the Federal Communications Commission, participation in the WEA program is voluntary for wireless carriers, and it is possible that your carrier or even your cell phone may not support receiving WEAs -- including AMBER alerts. Those who are able to receive these alerts can receive government-approved alerts sent directly to their mobile devices.

Cell phone AMBER alerts appear just like text messages, but they do not impact a mobile user's text message plan and are entirely free.

Can You Turn AMBER Alerts Off?

AMBER alerts and some weather-related alerts may be turned off on many cell phones. Each phone may be slightly different in its settings, but only a few taps are necessary to disable AMBER alerts on iPhones and Android devices.

Although AMBER alerts can be disabled, not all WEAs can. Under the WARN Act passed in 2006, the FCC does not allow mobile users to disable messages issued by the President of the United States.

While these messages may be jarring or unexpected, take a moment to consider leaving them on. Californians received their first real test of the cell phone AMBER alert in August, and it eventually led to an abducted 16-year-old girl's rescue.

These AMBER alerts may be annoying, but for a culture that perpetually endures online ads and spam on our cell phones, it's a small irritation for a powerful tool.

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