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Late-night cellphone Amber Alert startles

A child abduction alert transmitted to cellphones across the state jolted North Coast residents from their sleep, lit up darkened rooms from bedside tables and befuddled some with its brief missive about a case from Boulevard, an obscure town in San Diego County.

Monday's Amber Alert message was the first sent statewide with new wireless technology automatically enabled on some phone models.

But it came as a surprise to many that a national system exists that can chime alerts on any capable smartphone without a person opting in.

"If they can do that, then what else can they do?" said Steve Pedersen, 62, of Monte Rio. "I was at home; what was I going to do, exactly? Was I going to go on a search?"

The system is designed to enlist as many eyes as possible on the road to look for a suspect, a missing child or a vehicle sought by law enforcement authorities.

In the recent case, the San Diego County Sheriff's Office activated an alert for the blue Nissan Versa thought to be driven by a man suspected of killing a woman and kidnapping her two children.

The San Diego agency contacted the CHP, which then prompted a network of agencies to send alerts through multiple channels, such as media broadcasts, Caltrans highway signs and displays at gas station pumps.

The National Weather Service and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children sent the wireless message at 9:30 p.m., and it was received by phones at varying times, depending on the recipient's wireless carrier.

"We know there's power when you engage the public," said Stacy Garrett, spokeswoman with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "Somebody has seen that child; somebody has seen that car."

The Amber Alert program was created in 1996 and is named for Amber Hagerman, 9, who was abducted and killed near her home in Texas.


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