FCC May Target Amazon, Other Retailers in Jammer Crackdown

The federal agency issues a reminder that devices jamming cell phones and GPS devices are illegal in the U.S. and announces crackdown on sellers and users.

The Federal Communications Commission is going after companies that sell devices intended to block cell-phone signals, GPS signals or other types of legal communications devices. The announcement can be seen at the FCC Website. The commission has already begun legal action against Phonejammer.com, where the FCC has initiated a $25,000 forfeiture proceeding. Retailers that violate the law can face fines of more than $100,000 for each violation as well as prison time and forfeiture of the products that violate the law. The FCC has also begun similar actions against three other retailers.

One source at the FCC told eWEEK that the commission is already aware that Amazon.com is selling similar devices on behalf of Stuyvesant Camera in New York. The source indicated that Amazon would be a major target for an FCC investigation. Repeated calls to Amazon for comment resulted in an e-mail from Amazon spokesperson Mary Osako, who told eWEEK, "We don't have a comment to offer on this, but thanks for reaching out." However, when eWEEK called Amazon customer service, a representative identifying herself as "Jessica W." claimed that the sale of such devices in the United States was legal.

Amazon is only one of many retailers selling these devices in the United States. A quick Google search of companies turned up dozens of retailers, none of whom indicated that the sale of these devices in the United States was illegal, which is required by FCC regulations. The FCC has also noted in its announcement that simply saying that the legal issues are for the customer to determine does not comply with the law. The announcement by the FCC specifically states that devices intended to jam cell-phone signals, GPS signals, WiFi, police radar and other legal services may not be sold or offered for sale in the United States, and that retailers must state this in their advertising and on their Websites.

Customers who buy signal-blocking devices are also subject to the FCC's enforcement action. According to an FCC announcement issued Feb. 9, anyone using such a device is subject to fines, imprisonment and forfeiture of their equipment. The only exception to the FCC's rules about jammers is for products sold to the federal government, which is not subject to the FCC's rules about these devices.

Cell-phone jammers have become popular devices in theaters and restaurants in some cities in an effort to create a quiet and non-disruptive environment for customers. One device, TxTStopper, is marketed as an in-car safety device. However, the FCC noted that it has directed the company that sells TxTStopper to stop marketing the device in the United States or face stiff fines. A check of the company's Website shows that sales of this device continue in violation of the FCC order.

"While people who use jammers may think they are only silencing disruptive conversations or disabling unwanted GPS capabilities," Michele Ellison, chief of the FCC Enforcement Bureau, said in a statement, "they could also be preventing a scared teenager from calling 911, an elderly person from placing an urgent call to a doctor or a rescue team from homing in on the location of a severely injured person. The price for one person's moment of peace or privacy could be the safety and well-being of others."

Ellison said that jamming devices present serious safety risks. She pointed out that they are indiscriminate devices that can prevent emergency communications and critical public-safety communications (such as the radios used by first responders) and create a number of other safety problems.

The FCC is asking people who suspect that their cell phone, GPS or WiFi signals are being blocked to call the Enforcement Bureau at 1-888-CALL-FCC or to visit www.fcc.gov/complaints. The commission is providing more information at www.fcc.gov/eb/jammerenforcement. You can also e-mail the FCC at jammerinfo@fcc.gov.

FCC spokesperson David Fiske told eWEEK that this enforcement action is just the beginning of the commission's effort to put an end to illegal jamming of cell-phone and other signals.

The action by the FCC should come as no surprise to retailers who sell these devices. While it's to be expected that some marginal sellers wishing to make a fast buck might decide to engage in such illegal activities, it's surprising that normally reputable organizations such as Amazon or Stuyvesant Camera could get this past their legal departments. The FCC has been aggressive in cracking down on people and devices that interfere with legal, authorized communications for decades, and the penalties for such actions have resulted in millions of dollars in fines over the years.

In this case, the efforts to block signals are couched as being intended for some greater good, such as a quiet dining experience or driver safety. However, in the FCC's view, blocking a legal signal is simply that-blocking-regardless of the reason. The FCC's crackdown on products such as TxTStopper is especially understandable, given that the one place where someone may need to use a cell phone the most is in a car during an emergency, and the TxTStopper would prevent that.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...