FCC Cracks Down on Cell Phone 'Jammers'

The FCC says illegal devices that block cell phone signals could pose security risk.

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The FCC has noticed an increasing number of people selling "jammers"—devices that can block cell phone calls, text messages, Wi-Fi networks, and GPS systems—and could potentially be used to cause havoc in public spaces.

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The small, battery-powered devices can be used to create "dead zones" within a small area, usually 30 feet or so, and have been used by movie theaters, restaurants, and schools to keep people off their cell phones. But they also cut off 911 calls, can disrupt navigation near airports, and have been used near police stations to interrupt radio communications. Officials at the FCC say they've noticed an increasing number of jammers, which are banned by federal law, coming into the country. Many cheaper versions, which sell for as little as $25, are imported from Asia, according to the agency..

Selling, advertising, using, or importing jammers are illegal acts, according to the Communications Act of 1934, which bans blocking radio communications in public.

Earlier this week, the FCC issued citations to eight people and companies advertising jammers on Craigslist.

The FCC said jammers were advertised on the site in Orlando, Philadelphia, Austin, Mississippi, Charlotte, N.C., Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, and Corpus Christi, Texas. Officials say they don't believe the cases are connected.

"Merely posting a signal jammer ad on sites like Craigslist.org violates federal law. Signal jammers are contraband for a reason," Michele Ellison, the FCC's enforcement bureau chief, said in a statement. "One person's moment of peace or privacy could very well endanger the safety and wellbeing of others."

According to the citations, most sellers advertised jammers as a way of to have an "undisturbed nap" on a bus, force a quiet classroom, or keep your area "annoyance free," without alluding to the potential for more nefarious uses of the device.

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"We are increasingly concerned that individual consumers who operate jamming devices do not appear to understand the potentially grave consequences of using a jammer," one of the citations reads. "Instead, these operators incorrectly assume that their illegal operation is justified by personal convenience or should otherwise be excused."

But at least one seller seemed to know jammers were contraband, the FCC says.

Keith Grabowski allegedly advertised a "cell phone jammer, wifi jammer" on the Philadelphia Craigslist for $300. In the ad, he says "because of the nature of this item, few details are given out," the jammer "is no toy" and "I just want to get rid of it as fast as possible."

"The nature of his ad suggests that Mr. Grabowski was aware of the sensitive, and/or illegal nature of the device he was offering for sale on Craigslist," his citation says.

People issued citations will have 15 days to remove their ad from the website and give the FCC information about where they purchased the jammers and who they sold them to. Merely advertising a jammer for sale could carry a fine of more than $100,000.

The FCC has set up a "Jammer Tip Line" for people to let the bureau know about people who may be selling or using a jammer.

"We intend to take increasingly aggressive enforcement action against violators," Ellison said. "If we catch you selling or operating a jammer, it's going to cost you."

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Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at jkoebler@usnews.com.