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Amber Alert Q&A: Why it happens, how to turn it off

The high-pitched Amber Alert that hit cellphones across the Baltimore area Thursday morning may have confused some, prompting a fresh round of questions.

Baltimore County Police issued the missing child alert at about 10:45 a.m. for Caitlyn Marie Virts, who authorities believe was taken by her father, Timothy Virts, 38. Police said Caitlyn is "not supposed to be with her father" and they are concerned for her safety.

What is it?

The Wireless Emergency Alert is a new program for cellphones that started Jan. 1, 2013 replacing the previous “opt-in” system.

Cellphone owners  now receive messages automatically, based on their proximity to the emergency, not based on their phone number.

Can I opt out?

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.

How does it work?

An alert that looks like a standard text message reaches a user's cellphone based on a number of criteria.

People who said they never got an alert, or received more than one, should keep in mind that the message is disseminated through cell towers, not phone numbers. And since cell towers are chosen on the basis of geographic proximity to the incident, it’s possible that moving between affected zones can factor into how many messages your phone receives.

The signal is transmitted simultaneously to all mobile devices within the range of cell towers in the affected area. Authorities also broadcast the alerts multiple times to account for the movement of people in and out of these zones.

There are no texting charges, and the system does not track phones' whereabouts.

When are they sent out?

For an Amber Alert to be issued, several criteria must be met.

Authorities must first confirm that an abduction has occurred and that it does not involve a runaway.

The victim(s) must be 17 or younger or have a proven mental or physical disability and be in "imminent danger of serious injury or death."

And, finally, there should be information available that, if provided to the public, could assist in the child's safe recovery.

The system of checks has been successful in keeping the number of hoaxes relatively low. In 2012, there were 15 Amber Alert activations, with 19 victims recovered. Just one incident was determined to be a hoax.

So I get an Amber Alert, what next?

A key part of the alert is information identifying the vehicle suspected of being involved in the abduction.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children is asking anyone with information to immediately call 911 or Baltimore County Police Department at (410) 887-7320.

"Do not take action which could endanger your safety or further endanger the abducted child," a notice from the center said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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