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Amber alert fatigue? Alerts on cell phones set Californians buzzing. (+video)

Amber alerts went wireless this week in California, where two children were recently abducted. While the program saves lives, it's also generating a backlash from people angry at the shrill cell phone alerts.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / August 7, 2013

Drivers pass a display showing an Amber Alert, asking motorists to be on the lookout for a specific vehicle on Tuesday in San Diego. Police issued an alert in Oregon, Wednesday, as a search for two children missing after their mother's murder continued.

Gregory Bull/AP

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LOS ANGELES

A statewide Amber Alert set cell phones buzzing and flashing late Monday night to alert Californians to watch out for two San Diego children that authorities say may have been abducted by a neighbor who allegedly killed their mother.

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Reporter Sarah Hashim-Waris has details on the continued search for Lakeside children Hanna and Ethan Anderson, who are believed to have been kidnapped by family friend James Lee DiMaggio.

The use of the child abduction emergency system shed light not only on the tragic case at hand – the children's whereabouts remain unknown but their mother's body has been found – but on the use of the system itself, which this week expanded in California to cell phones from its previous platforms of radio, television, and road signs.

But as the Amber Alert system (it is named for Amber Hagerman, a nine-year-old abducted and murdered in Texas in 1996) expands, so does public pushback. Monday marked the first time in California that officials notified the public of an Amber Alert via cell phones, according to the California Highway Patrol (CHP), and several media accounts have depicted people as confused, angered, or embarrassed by the tones and messages showing up on their phones.

The new system sends messages to wireless customers with devices in the area where a child has been abducted, even if the wireless customer isn't from the area.

“With this latest modification that just kicked in, we can describe it as well-intentioned but poorly executed,” says Darren Kavinoky, an attorney and TV legal analyst based in Los Angeles. “There wasn’t sufficient advanced notice of the rollout, and there has been insufficient information about how people can opt out of it, and as a result, there is a real danger that it could hurt their cause.”

He likens the situation to the history of car alarms, which began to go off so frequently that people ignored them.

But Bob Hoever, of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, says this is an important time to remind people of the success of the Amber Alert, which is in use now in several countries. Nationally, there have been 656 children returned because of the system. More recently, since first installing the system in 2002, Utah has had 34 Amber Alerts for 39 children. Thirty-one of those kids were returned safely.

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