L.A. Now Live: Cellphone Amber Alerts startle Californians

If you were jolted awake Monday night by an Amber Alert on your phone, you weren’t alone. For the first time, California had notified the public of an Amber Alert—a suspected child abduction—through the state’s cellphone network.

Join us at 9 a.m. when we talk with Times reporters Joseph Serna and Emily Foxhall about these new Amber Alerts and the reason they’re popping up on your phone uninvited.

The Amber Alert was issued Monday after firefighters in the tiny community of Boulevard— about 50 miles east of San Diego and five miles north of the Mexican border—found the body of Christina Anderson of Lakeside.

Authorities allege the owner of the home, James Lee DiMaggio, 40, killed Anderson and abducted her daughter, Hannah Anderson, 16, and son Ethan, 8. The California Highway Patrol said DiMaggio could be headed to Texas or Canada in a blue Nissan Versa.


Seeking the public’s help in locating DiMaggio and the children, officials issued a notification to the vast majority of cellphones in California—the first time the state has used a new, national Amber Alert system administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Amber Alert program was created in 1996 in memory of Amber Hagerman, 9, who was abducted and killed near her home in Texas. For years, the alerts went out through radio, television or on message boards, 700 of which are positioned alongside highways and thoroughfares in California.

But on Monday, rather than being sent as text messages, the alerts were transmitted on an exclusive frequency that can reach tens of thousands of people at the same time—even if those people are crowded into one place, such as a stadium, and even, as some users discovered this week, if a cellphone is set to silent.

And cellphone users are automatically signed up unless they decide to opt out of the program. Under the old opt-in system, the alerts reached fewer than 800,000 people, said Brian Josef, assistant vice president of regulatory affairs for the Wireless Assn., a nonprofit trade organization. Under the new system adopted in 2013, the alerts can reach 97% of the 300 million-plus active cellphones in the United States.