FCC steps up crackdown on cell jammers

Devices used to block wireless calls can also disrupt alarm signals
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Friday, March 23, 2012

WASHINGTON—The Federal Communications Commission is stepping up enforcement to halt the sale and use of radio jamming devices, which can indiscriminately interfere with cellular 911 calls and wireless signals from alarm devices.

It is illegal to buy, sell or use signal jammers in the United States, but that doesn’t stop consumers—including criminals who use the devices to disable alarm systems—from obtaining jammers online. They are available on many websites, with retailers claiming the devices can disrupt GPS, GSM and CDMA signals at a range of up to 120 feet.

The FCC last fall took enforcement action against 20 online retailers in 12 states for illegally marketing cellphone jammers, GPS jammers, Wi-Fi jammers and other similar devices. A citation was issued to each retailer warning against future misconduct; a second violation could lead to fines of $16,000 to $112,000.

“Jamming devices create serious safety risks,” Michele Ellison, chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, said in a prepared statement. “In the coming weeks and months, we’ll be intensifying our efforts through partnerships with law enforcement agencies to crack down on those who continue to violate the law.”

Lou Fiore, chairman of the Alarm Industry Communications Commission, said the industry’s concern is that jammers used in public places—schools, theaters, churches or restaurants—can inadvertently disrupt signals used by alarm companies.

“The government is doing some selective jamming for their own purposes, like at events, but it’s very selective and very short term,” he said. “We’re not opposed to that, but en masse without any controls, it would obviously be a big problem for us. For instance, if a restaurant started jamming calls and there’s an alarm next door—these things are not very selective, they go through walls—you end up jamming a burglar or fire alarm system.”

Alarm signals also can be intentionally jammed, as was the case in 2009 when thieves stole $2.3 million from a Brink’s warehouse in Columbus, Ohio. One of the men convicted in the case testified that two of the thieves cut holes in the roof, used a cellphone jammer to disrupt the alarm system and then drilled through a vault door. Last summer, thieves used a jammer to help them steal $74,000 worth of designer sunglasses from a store in Orange County, Fla.

“It’s certainly feasible,” Fiore said. “The equipment is available. If you’re performing an illegal act, you’re probably not worried about getting these [jammers] illegally.”

Alarm companies that have had signals disrupted by jammers can file a complaint with the FCC by going online at www.fcc.gov/complaints or by calling 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322).