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Kidnapping alert to be sent by text message

The Ylenia case gave impetus to setting up the alert Keystone

Police can now send text messages to alert the public shortly after a child has been abducted, it has been announced.

The move, revealed on Tuesday, is the latest innovation in a nationwide alert system for child kidnappings that has been in operation since January 1, 2010.

Under the SMS message system, all registered subscribers near the site of the kidnapping will receive a message along the lines of: “Kidnapping alert: On 24.2.10, at 8am in X 9 year old X was dragged into a red Golf registration number X”.

“It will say that you should report any information to the police as soon as possible on a certain number, which will lead you to a call centre at the Federal Police Office,” Roger Schneeberger, general secretary of the Conference of Cantonal Police and Justice Directors, told

Messages will only be received by those who have subscribed to the service, either through the kidnapping alert website or one of three mobile phone providers (see panel). A SFr0.20 ($0.21) registration fee is charged but alerts  – in the national languages and English – are free.

The service is the next step in the nationwide alert system implemented by the police and justice directors and the justice ministry.

Quick information

Based on the French “alerte enlèvement” system, it allows information to be disseminated quickly through the  media, motorway display panels and announcements in railway stations and airports.

Text will go further, said Schneeberger.

“You are not always watching television or listening to the radio but you always have your mobile with you, so we hope that, by including this mobile phone alert, the tips to the police will come much faster and that we will reach much more of the population,” he explained.

The abduction and killing of five-year-old Ylenia in the summer of 2007 prompted calls for an alarm. In March 2009, the murder of 16-year-old Lucie Trezzini near Zurich increased the momentum.

Campaigners from the Fredi foundation, a private body which helps in the search for missing children, had also long been calling for action. It submitted a petition of 32,000 signatures in favour of an alert in 2008.

Parliament finally approved the alarm in 2009 following a motion by the now Interior Minister Didier Burkhalter.

Schneeberger said that although the system had not been used since its launch last year, experience of the past ten to 20 years showed that one or two alerts annually could be expected.

Aargau case

He also pointed out that an alarm is not used in all kidnapping cases and that sometimes it could be a difficult decision because of the possibility of putting the child in danger once the kidnapper was aware of the alert.

“Last week we had such a case where police had clues from elsewhere and so decided not to use the system and they were successful,” he said, referring to the kidnapping and sexual abuse in canton Aargau of a 15-year-old girl by a 32-year-old man, who been in contact with her over the internet. The man was arrested and the girl freed.

“That shows the alert is really for cases where you have no other clues, you have no indication where the child could be and then you have no choice but to use it,” added Schneeberger.

Diane Burgi, from the Fredi foundation, which had also proposed a text service, says the system is extremely useful. She hopes that it will work fast and efficiently.

“We have to use all our means to say clearly to predators: you can’t abduct children here,” she told

Time and reach

Urs Kiener from children’s charity Pro Juventute said that that time was key in emergency situations. The charity sees this with its Counsel + Help 147 telephone helpline, which can also be accessed by SMS.

“The new SMS abduction alert system makes optimal use of the potential of new media,” he said in written comments.

“In cases of child abductions, the first 24 hours are crucial for success or failure in saving the child. We would be in favour of extending the text abduction alert system to an international not only a national service.”

Burgi believes the alert could also used in parental kidnappings, when a child is taken by a separated parent. A warning system could also be used for disappearance cases involving mentally disabled people or the elderly with Alzheimer’s, she added.

“We can’t just be satisfied with the minimum, we have to do everything that we can,” she said. 

The alarm system will be activated as soon as there is sufficient information and there are fears that the kidnapped minor is endangered.

The alerts will be announced, based on a special convention, by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, the Federal Roads Office,  Swiss Federal Railways, operators of the airports Zurich, Geneva, Basel-Mulhouse, Lugano and Bern and the Swiss News Agency and online media.

In addition, the amber alerts will be transmitted by the mobile operators Swisscom, Sunrise and Orange via text message to their voluntarily registered subscribers.

The cantonal law enforcement authorities will be responsible for the contents of the alarm text and the triggering of the alert. Calls from the public will be answered by a call centre, which will be arranged within 30 minutes by the Federal Police Office.

You can register for the alert service either via text or via a website (also in English, see links).

Registration via text with “START ALERT (PC)” to “77777”. Example, “START ALERT 8000”. Registration is needed to avoid abuse, the authorities say.

All service providers charge 20 centimes (regardless of the user’s type of mobile phone subscription) to register or opt out of the kidnap alert service, or to change the postcode. The transmission of a kidnap alert text message is free of charge.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR