Hang up or else

Scowling and shushing don't seem to cut it anymore. The obnoxious cell talker is immune to it all, and he's on a phone call that's way more important than the movie you paid to see anyway.

For some of the intruded-upon, there is a clear, though drastic, answer to this niggling modern-life predicament: the cell-phone jammer. It's a device that resembles a cell phone, but transmits a radio frequency that interrupts all nearby cellular transmissions. Bottom-end models, which sell for as little as $50, have a range of about 40 feet.

"It's the greatest," said a man who recently purchased a $79.99 model as a Christmas present for his father. "It's a really simple device. It has one button. You press the button, a green light comes on and it really works."

And, unlike scowling and shushing, jamming is not likely to provoke a fight. Because the devices are easily concealed during use, the target has no idea he's being jammed. All he sees is a "no signal" display on his phone.

"My dad's been blocking idiots on their cell phones at traffic lights and inside of Costco," the man said. "He loves it."

There's one big problem with using a cell-phone jammer, however: the possibility of spending a year in jail and paying an $11,000 fine. Using, manufacturing, selling, importing -- even advertising -- a jammer violates the amended Communications Act of 1934.

According to a recent New York Times article, the Federal Communications Commission has prosecuted "a handful" of American companies for distributing the devices. (FCC spokeswoman Janice Wise said her agency would not comment about cell-phone jammers, declining to provide a reason.)

It's impossible to say how many jammers have been purchased by Americans via the Internet, although the Times estimated that "hundreds of them a month" are finding their way to cafe owners, public-transportation riders and theater operators.

"I would love to," said Rafe Cohen, president of Galaxy Theatres, whose Las Vegas multiplexes include the Cannery and Neonopolis, when asked his feelings about installing a fixed, professional theater jamming system. Such devices run between $1,000 and $5,000.

"I would do it in a minute," Cohen said. "We've all been annoyed by people talking on cell phones and the screens of kids who text each other.

"But I just can't break the law."

Jammers were developed for law enforcement and military to interrupt communications by terrorists, who have been known to trigger bombs with cell calls. They are illegal for civilians to use for a reason.

"They interfere with the legal right everyone has to make a call," said Joe Farren, spokesman for a cell-provider lobbyist group called CTIA -- The Wireless Association.

"And imagine if someone were making an emergency call."

Indeed, one man reportedly used a jammer to thwart 911 calls during his 2005 robbery of a pharmacy in Georgetown, Mass.

"Cell-phone jammers are prohibited on eBay under our electronics equipment policy," said Kim Rubey, spokeswoman for the site.

While this is true, somewhere between 16 and 25 jammers were purchased on eBay and distributed to the United States last month -- some purchasers keep their locations private -- including the one that found its way to the man's father.

Rubey said she was unaware of the activity.

"We do have to prioritize the resources dedicated to enforcing our policies," she said, explaining that the site averages 102 million listings at any given time.

"Handguns and other items that pose a physical danger are a higher priority," she said.

One of 22 Internet distributors contacted by the Review-Journal agreed to be interviewed. A spokeswoman for Bxian, a Chinese seller, said her company ships an average of 10 to the United States each month. (When asked if she knew whether doing so is illegal, she replied, "No, I don't think so," then disconnected the call.)

The man who got the jammer for his father refers to its illegality as "a concern."

Contact reporter Corey Levitan at clevitan@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0456.