FCC means business when it comes to illegal cellphone jammers

In a sting operation, the agency is warning would-be sellers on Craigslist -- by name

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission issued a warning in three languages against cellphone jammers this week, and just in case that wasn't clear enough, it employed public shaming, too.

On Monday, the agency's Enforcement Bureau issued citations against six people who advertised jammers on Craigslist.org, then posted the citations on its website with the perpetrators' last names in the subject lines.

Though it's not that easy to find documents on the FCC's site, even after a recent redesign, the citations are there for the edification of the public, laying out the details of each violator's Craigslist posting and how the FCC's staff caught them. One of the citations even includes the perpetrator's cellphone number, which was included in his jammer ad.

The message is that it's illegal for an individual consumer to use a wireless jamming device, even in their own home. In the FCC's words: "Except for the very limited context of authorized, official use by the federal government, jamming devices have no legal use in the United States." Not surprisingly, it's also illegal to sell or advertise them. Violators are subject to fines of up to US$16,000 per case of marketing or using a jammer. The six latest citations only warned the perpetrators they would be fined if they continued using or selling the units, but the FCC warned them that in the future, "we intend to impose substantial monetary penalties, rather than (or in addition to) warnings, on individuals who operate a jammer."

The six citations were part of a broader crackdown the agency is carrying out through undercover operations, in which it finds jammers advertised online and contacts the potential sellers for more information. The FCC said it has targeted 23 ads for signal jammers on Craigslist in the past two weeks.

Jammers are illegal because they can block not just irritating one-sided conversations nearby but also 911 calls and emergency communications across a wide range of frequencies, including public safety bands, the FCC says. This week's crackdown is intended to send a message. "We are increasingly concerned that individual consumers who operate jamming devices do not appear to understand the potentially grave consequences of using a jammer," the FCC said in the citations.

The would-be sellers, not surprisingly, played up the jammers' effectiveness in their Craigslist ads, which featured the casual use of spelling and grammar often found on the online classifieds site.

"once you turn this unit on within 1 minute everyone around you will not be able to talk on there phone until you turn it off it jams gps wireless internet and cell phones its portable i want $500 for it," wrote a Joseph Hundley, whom the FCC said posted his ad on the Craigslist for Charlotte, North Carolina. Its citation, similar to the others, was entitled, "Hundley cited for offering jammer on Craigslist.org."

A posting by George Conde on the Craigslist for Corpus Christi, Texas, specified an effective range of up to 15 meters and a size and design that wouldn't raise suspicion. When FCC staffers called for more information about the $175 product, Conde said he had tested it out. He told them he had bought it for use while driving and it "works great."

John A. Bering, who posted on Cincinnati Craigslist, appealed to the sympathies of film buffs: "great for movies don't be botherd again with a cell phone lite in your eyes from someone in front of you when you want to watch the movies," Bering wrote.

Dancing Bear Technologies, in Tupelo, Mississippi, appealed to salespeople with a $99.95 jammer. "Don't lose a sale due to a cell phone interrupting your pitch!" its ad said.

But Keith Grabowsky, who the FCC said posted an ad on Philadelphia Craigslist, may have known something was up with the device he had for sale for $300.

"Because of the nature of this item, few details are given out. This is not a toy. For adult use only. I just want to get rid of it as fast as possible," the ad said.

Craigslist has gotten into legal snarls previously over certain kinds of ads on its sprawling, multifaceted sites. A 2009 lawsuit against the company by Cook County, Illinois, for allegedly hosting ads for prostitution, was dismissed after a federal judge said Craigslist had done no wrong. If the site bans illegal activity, warns users against it and removes inappropriate content, it's not responsible for users ignoring those rules, the judge said.

In this case, Craigslist specifically bans users selling or advertising signal jamming devices through its site. "Therefore, you have not only violated federal law, but also contravened the contractual agreement that governs your use of Craigslist," the FCC wrote in its citations. The agency said it would contact Craigslist about the violations. Craigslist declined to immediately comment.

Also on Monday, the FCC issued a "Consumer Alert" in English, Spanish and Mandarin warning consumers that using signal jammers is illegal.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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