Fraudulent Amber Alerts

Amber Alerts are general notifications in the first few hours after a child has been abducted. The idea is that if you get the word out quickly, you have a better chance of recovering the child.

There's an interesting social dynamic here, though. If you issue too many of these, the public starts ignoring them. This is doubly true if the alerts turn out to be false.

That's why two hoax Amber Alerts in September (one in Miami and the other in North Carolina) are a big deal. And it's a disturbing trend. Here's data from 2004:

Out of 233 Amber Alerts issued last year, at least 46 were made for children who were lost, had run away or were the subjects of hoaxes and misunderstandings, according to the Scripps Howard study, which used records from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Police also violated federal and state guidelines by issuing dozens of vague alerts with little information upon which the public can act. The study found that 23 alerts were issued last year even though police didn't know the name of the child who supposedly had been abducted. Twenty-five alerts were issued without complete details about the suspect or a description of the vehicle used in the abduction.

Think of it as a denial-of-service attack against the real world.

Posted on October 5, 2007 at 11:00 AM • 21 Comments

Comments

SilasOctober 5, 2007 11:36 AM

"Think of it as a denial-of-service attack against the real world."

No, the whole 'paedos on every street corner' panic industry is a denial-of-service attack on the real world.

What's been described above is merely the predictable results of pandering to such overblown and assinine hysteria.

End of story.

ErikOctober 5, 2007 11:51 AM

I don't think false amber alerts are tipping ordinary people away making an effort to keep an eye out. But it might be a burden on law enforcement when people phone in "sitings".

Steve BarbedWireKissOctober 5, 2007 12:24 PM

"If you issue too many of these, the public starts ignoring them. This is doubly true if the If you issue too many of these, the public starts ignoring them. This is doubly true if the alerts turn out to be false.

AnonymousOctober 5, 2007 1:08 PM

233 alerts / 50 states = 4.66 average per state.

IMHO, not enough to trigger the automatic ignorance repsonse.

dragonfrogOctober 5, 2007 1:09 PM

"Out of 233 Amber Alerts issued last year, at least 46 were made for children who were lost, had run away or were the subjects of hoaxes and misunderstandings..."

Obviously you want to avoid issuing alerts in the case of hoaxes or misunderstandings, but lost or runaway children?

If a kid is lost, why would you want to avoid issuing an alert? The sooner the word is out, the less time the kid has to wander about, and the smaller area your search has to cover.

Andre LePlumeOctober 5, 2007 1:20 PM

Fraudulent?

"Never ascribe to malice...", Bruce.

As some of the comments here show, awareness of the Amber criteria is unevenly distributed. These alerts are issued by LEOs. It is extremely unlikely that they are misapplying the criteria with an intent to deceive.

AnonymousOctober 5, 2007 1:25 PM

"233 alerts / 50 states = 4.66 average per state.

IMHO, not enough to trigger the automatic ignorance repsonse."

That works unless a Certain News Network broadcasts amber alerts around the country (and world) as part of the news.

SpiderOctober 5, 2007 2:55 PM

When I read the headline, I didn't think of missing children. I thought there had been a new color added to the terrorist threat indicator.

Which is exactly what I think every time I see one on cnn.

Mark J.October 5, 2007 10:04 PM

They just interrupted the baseball game here for a child abduction alert. The whole screen turns black while they blare a horn and tell you a child abduction alert is in effect for the following counties, and then they list the counties. They tell you nothing about the child, just that one was abducted. Am I missing something here? What possible good does this do?

Wyle_EOctober 5, 2007 11:03 PM

Amber Alerts are pretty useless. Has *any* kidnapped child ever been recovered because of a tip submitted in response to an Amber Alert? I suspect that the vast majority of "MISSING CHILDREN!!!" fall into one of two classes: runaways from abusive homes, and children taken by their fathers, who are being bled white by child-support decrees. "Wife screws judge, judge screws husband." In neither case will interrupting network programming do anything for the kid. In the rare case of a real kidnapping, by the time the alert reaches the networks and cable head ends, the kidnapper will have disguised his victim and will be hundreds of miles from the focus of the alert. An Amber Alert may be useful for finding a kid who wandered away from a negligent parent in a mall, but that alert belongs on the mall PA system, not on a statewide broadcast.

David HarmonOctober 6, 2007 8:40 PM

The point of the Amber alerts isn't to find the kids; that could have been done with standard law-enforcement procedures and the occasional press release. The point is to keep the populace scared that their kid might be next.

SOctober 7, 2007 4:09 AM

@Wyle_E - "Has *any* kidnapped child ever been recovered because of a tip submitted in response to an Amber Alert?"

I can't get my keywords right based on what I remember of the story, so here it is by memory:

Authorities started noticing a pattern of young teen white/hispanic girls being kidnapped along I-10 (New Orleans, Houston, and San Antonio), and they'd be sexually assaulted, but released by the kidnapper. When another girl that fit that pattern was kidnapped, they went back to the surviving girls and reinterviewed them for small details. I remember a lot of attention focused on the bad guy's car (red and the type of car it was -- don't remember, sorry).

So the news came out with an AA about a newly kidnapped girl, most likely between NOLA and San Antonio. They showed pics of the girl, and said her kidnapper was white, and gave a bad police drawing (supposedly it was bad because they didn't get enough detailed info from the girls, or maybe they gave conflicting descriptions). They played that AA a lot on all the medias.

Someone called in a possible red car with a young white girl at about the same time an officer pulled over the bad guy for a traffic/vehicle thing (something minor IIRC). The girl jumped out of the red car, ran to the police car, got into the front seat and buckled herself, while the officer watched in shock. A few seconds later, the bad guy shot himself.

IIRC, the call about the red car turned out to be right about it being the bad guy, even though it was pure dumb luck that a minor traffic/vehicle violation that saved the girl from the kidnapper. But if that officer hadn't pulled over that car, the AA alerted everyone to watch for red cars with young girl, and someone did indeed call in the correct vehicle.

AND, remember that blonde girl nabbed by the religious homeless guy and his wife? She was spotted by a woman walking down the street many months later.

We've had at least one 'false' AA here about 6 months back, but the media was quick to report the AA was over. I don't think the amount of AAs we're getting now will desensitize everyone. Especially when the AAs help to find a kid still alive.

SOctober 7, 2007 4:15 AM

Oh, another AA that worked out well: About 11 years ago, a newborn was stolen from the hospital. A neighbor of the kidnapper called into the police to tell them she had a new baby out of the blue, and wasn't pregnant before. They checked, and it was the kidnapped baby. IIRC, that baby wasn't even missing for 24 hours.

Bike riderOctober 7, 2007 8:24 PM

Some people do pay attention: parents. Even though the crime rate and abduction rate is what it was 30 years ago, parents keep their kids in the house out of fear. The obesity that results from this kills many more children than Amber Alerts will ever save.

GregOctober 8, 2007 3:16 AM

Im a parent. I know lots of parents. We are not all running around in fear of kidnappings keeping the kids inside. I don't know where all this paranoid *they are keepings us afraid* BS is coming from, but perhaps you should get some tin foil hats. You just never know.

Even better. Why don't you do something about whatever deep conspiracy you fear is happening. There is a lot more to democracy than the right to vote.

Oh and for a laugh there was a very funny south park episode about child abductions.

PeterOctober 8, 2007 6:45 AM

In the words of Rev. Lovejoy's wife: "Won't somebody please think of the children!"

Joe BuckOctober 8, 2007 11:14 AM

Greg,

I'm a parent too. Our town (a Silicon Valley, CA suburb) has a local free weekly, with an elderly columnist known for writing "in the old days" columns. He wrote a column bemoaning the fact that very few children walk to school any more. A couple of mothers wrote in the next week, explaining that they would never let their children walk to school because they might never return, that the world was now a much more scary place.

The crime rate where the letter writers and I live is miniscule. Attacks on children are unheard of; police reports consist mainly of minor burglaries and drunk driving. The crime rate has drastically dropped since the 1970s. But these two women are terrified.

By the way, I walk with my daughter to school; I do the walk because I need the exercise and it's a way of spending more time with her. It's only about .6 mile (1 km).

Marty BusseOctober 9, 2007 9:16 AM

S,

How could an Amber Alert have saved a child 11 years ago when the system is younger than that? It didn't become a coordinated national effort until 2002.

Also, can you provide citations for the stories you provide? A link to a URL, say?

David HarmonOctober 10, 2007 2:06 PM

AND, remember that blonde girl nabbed by the religious homeless guy and his wife? She was spotted by a woman walking down the street many months later.

If you're thinking of Elizabeth Smart (though I don't think the kidnapper had a wife), then IIRC, that wasn't how the guy got caught -- the girl herself got away from him for a moment and approached a passerby.


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