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Awakened by an Amber Alert? Here's why and how to turn it off

Officials are searching for suspect James Lee Dimaggio (left) in relation to an Amber Alert issued after a house was burned down in San Diego County and a woman's body and the remains of a child were found inside.
Officials are searching for suspect James Lee Dimaggio (left) in relation to an Amber Alert issued after a house was burned down in San Diego County and a woman's body and the remains of a child were found inside.
San Diego County Sheriff's Department

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A murder and possible kidnapping in Southern California has the state on alert.

Christina Anderson, 44, was found murdered near San Diego, and her two children might be traveling with the 40-year-old suspect.

Many California citizens heard of the case last night, after being awakened by an Amber Alert text message sent by the San Diego Sheriff's Department. The alert came as a shock to most, but the system has been in place for over a year as part of a program designed by FEMA.

So what exactly is an Amber Alert? 

First off, it's a backronym, an acronym created to fit a name. It's named after Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old girl kidnapped and murdered in Arlington, Texas, in 1996: It stands for America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response. 

The alert system became national in 2002 after a White House conference on missing children, and the first National Amber Alert Coordinator was appointed. In 2005, Hawaii became the last state to establish an Amber Alert Plan, creating a nationwide network.

Californians have seen Amber Alerts on television and electronic freeway signs among other locations, but Monday night's alert was the first to be sent throughout California via cell phone. 

"Your phone has to be capable of receiving them, your provider has to be capable of sending them, and your local agency has to be using them," said Ina Fried, a tech reporter for All Things D, on Take Two. "For many agencies, it was the first time all of those things lined up."

Each state has its own individual plan for issuing an Amber Alert, but it generally has to meet the following criteria:

There are also different levels of alerts. There are local alerts, statewide alerts like the one last night, and presidential alerts that can be sent to every eligible wireless phone in the country.

While Amber Alerts via text are rare, a more common usage of the alert system is for weather warnings, like hurricanes and tornadoes. The technology also doesn't reach every cell phone, only sending to newer smartphones.

There's also the sound received with the text. "It's a tone like your emergency alert system on your TV," said Fried.

Except for presidential alerts, users receiving the alerts can opt out of the program. Reaction to the alert has been mixed, as some criticized the text for not including a picture of the two possibly abducted children or enough information on them or suspected kidnapper James Lee DiMaggio.

As DiMaggio is being hunted by California authorities, a large portion of state citizens know about the manhunt, whether they wanted to know or not.

Amber Alerts at a glance:

Who receives them?
Most people with newer phones have the emergency alert system automatically activated. The new Amber Alert system replaces a prior "opt-in" system that went offline Dec. 31 and alerted about 700,000 people who had signed up nationally. The messages are geographically specific, going to people within the reach of a particular region's cell towers. So a person vacationing in Los Angeles might receive a text, whereas someone with a California number visiting Boston would not.

Participating service providers include AT&T, Cellcom, Cricket, Sprint, Nextel, T-Mobile, US Cellular, Verizon Wireless and Bluegrass Cellular, said Amy Storey, a spokeswoman for CTIA, a wireless industry association.

What do the alerts look and sound like?
They look like text messages, but are free, and sent over a system administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The phone will go off with a high-pitched roughly 10-second tone and vibrate multiple times. The messages are limited to 90 characters. If you silence your phone the tone will not go off, but you'll still see the message on your screen.

How do I turn them off?
To turn off the alarms on many phones you can opt out under your phone settings. Laptop Magazine has these step-by-step instructions for iPhones.

You can also send a text message to your service provider. Contact your service provider for more details.

For more information, click on your carrier below: 


With contributions by Jacob Freedman and the Associated Press.