Everything You Need to Know About Scanners and the Law

Radio scanners are used to find and translate frequencies that are being transmitted. The air is filled with radio signals of all kinds and a scanner is capable of tuning into them. Even the common radios that are installed in vehicles have a scanner. However, more advanced scanners exist that can access channels outside of the traditional news and radio stations.

This guide will only discuss and refer to the advanced models that are used for the purpose of listening to local emergency services, military, and government transmissions. The legality of tuning into these frequencies has long been a topic of confusion. Before discussing the legal issues associated with the use of scanners, it is important to first understand their history and how they work.

History of Radio Scanners

The very first scanners were controlled with crystals. Each frequency required one crystal so it got very expensive trying to tune into more than one channel. The scanners during this time only had around eight to twenty channels. It wasn’t until 1980 that RadioShack created a scanner with 300 channels and 10 scan banks. A scan bank has a range of frequencies within it. For example, local music and news stations are on one scan bank, while the emergency service transmissions are on a different scan bank.

How Radio Scanners Work

Radio scanners use a tuner that receives signal through antennas. The antennas may be internal, external, or even removable. The tuner directs which frequencies the scanner is picking up through the antenna. Once a clear frequency is detected, the signal is sent to the demodulator to be decoded. Those codes are then sent through the amplifier which converts them into sounds that the speakers can project.

The tuner can find the frequencies by scanning the radio waves in the area. Users can manually try to find a channel or the device can automatically scan through frequencies itself. It will stop and play the first complete frequency it finds. Some scanners also come with the preprogrammed ability to scan banks that certain agencies use.

The Legalities of Radio Scanners

The legality of using radio scanners varies. Certain frequencies have a much higher risk of running into legal problems than others do and sometimes there are gray areas within the law. It is very important to understand that every state has different laws regarding radio scanners.

The main concern with radio scanners is that they have the ability to pick up on more transmissions than people realize. Below are various frequencies that can be tuned into and how great the risk is to listen into them.

Transmission

Risk

Cell Phones Highly illegal to listen to any cell phone conversations
Civilian Aircraft Lower risk because no confidential information is given over civilian channels
Coast Guard Listening into any military channel is a high risk because confidential information may be exchanged; military information that is confidential is not voiced over the radio unless it is coded; it is still a risk to listen in
Emergency Medical Services Medium risk to listen into EMS calls; legal issues may arise if a patient’s confidential information is given; FCC regulations prohibit this
FBI Listening to anything from the Federal Bureau of Investigation is an extremely high risk and could easily result in legal action; even non confidential information should not be listened to
Fire Department Medium risk for the same reasons that it is for EMS; fire related calls are okay to be listened into, but most fire departments respond to the same medical calls that EMS does; patient confidentiality is at risk
Ham Radio The ham radio channels are public; okay to listen to
Law Enforcement High risk of listening to calls between dispatch and law enforcement personnel; in most states, it is generally not illegal; there are many stipulations involved that can result in legal discipline
Local Commercial Companies Plumbing and construction companies may use a two-way radio system; not illegal to listen into those frequencies as long as the information is not abused
Marine Civilian boaters often use radios to communicate; low risk of listening to the channel; if boaters make a call to the Coast Guard, it could become a risk
Military Aircraft Listening to military transmissions is a risk especially if real missions or training missions are taking place
News Media Vans and Helicopters Low risk to listen to media vans and helicopters; risk of being sued if news information they gathered is released without their permission
Officials at Sporting Events No risk of listening to pit crews and the other sports members so long as the information is not used maliciously
Local, State, and Federal Agencies Any government agencies are a high risk to listen to; misuse of any information will result in legal action whether or not it was illegal to use the scanner
Security Officers Security officers guarding regular business are not a risk to listen to; if guarding hidden or government facilities, it is a very high risk to listen to them; buildings that are hidden or important are heavily guarded for a reason

Every state has different laws pertaining to each type of transmission channel. Never tune into anything that is not public without checking the local laws first.

Illegal Uses of Radio Scanners

When it comes to scanners and their legality, there are a lot of gray areas. However, there are certain laws that are nationwide. These are the illegal uses of radio scanners.

1. Listening into Cell Phone Calls

Older cell phones used analog FM frequencies that could be picked up by scanners if the scanner was modified to do so. In 1994, the FCC ruled that all scanners sold within the U.S. had to be “cell blocked.” This means that the manufacturer had to build the radio scanners with a block against scanning any cellular frequencies. This is obsolete now because new cellphones use digital signals instead of analog. There is no way for scanners to pick up on their frequencies without significant modification.

2. Intercepting Scrambled Communications

Some agencies scramble their transmissions so that they cannot be listened to. This is done to prohibit the public from listening to their channel. If the frequency is scrambled, it is illegal to listen to it. Some scanners are sold with trunking capabilities which allow them to unscramble transmissions. Buying, using, and selling scanners with the trunking feature is illegal.

3. Importing Scanners with Illegal Features

Purchasing radio scanners from overseas that have the ability to capture cell phone signals or to unscramble frequencies is illegal.

4. Modifying Radio Scanners

Modifying scanners to receive cell phone signals or encrypted frequencies is illegal.

5. Using Information for Personal Gain

Any time information is used to manipulate someone, defame them, or gain an advantage over them, it is illegal.

6. Using the Information to Commit a Crime

Listening in to channels to gain information which will be used for criminal acts of any kind is illegal. Giving others the information so that they can commit a crime is also illegal.

Shopping for Scanners on eBay

Advanced radio scanners are rarely sold in brick and mortar stores unless they are at a specialty radio communications store. Unfortunately, they are not very common. Many people prefer to just shop online because it eliminates the travel time and they can get the opinions of others on whether the scanner is good quality.

Legal radio scanners of all kinds can be found easily on eBay. There are thousands of products and accessories that shoppers can browse through. This allows buyers to compare prices, features, and the performance of the scanners. By shopping online, people can look up product reviews and make sure that past buyers have been satisfied with the scanners.

How to Purchase Radio Scanners on eBay

eBay has designed the site to make the shopping process simple and organized. To begin, go to the eBay website and click on the All Categoriestab. Find the Consumer Electronics section and click on Radio Communication. Next, select Scanners. This will list all of the radio scanners that are for sale, but this list can be narrowed down. You can choose Portable / Handheld, Base Station, or Mobile / In – Vehicle scanners. Keep in mind that in-vehicle scanners are illegal in many states.

Now you can choose the brands you are interested in, enter your price range, and select how much channel memory you would like. Narrowing down these preferences helps speed up the process of finding the perfect scanner. Once you choose some scanners that you are interested in, look to see if they have an available warranty, whether the warranty is free or entails an extra charge, how much the shipping is, and lastly, see what kind of feedback the seller is getting from past customers.

Conclusion

People enjoy scanners because it can be exciting and fascinating to listen in to agency and civilian transmissions. However, it is important to check on local laws before tuning in to any at-risk frequencies. In addition, people also have to be careful what they reveal about what they heard. They could unintentionally give away information that leads to a violation of privacy or a criminal act. Radio scanners should be used and enjoyed as long as it is in a legal and safe way. By using the information provided, people can find and purchase a radio scanner that is satisfactory as well as legal.

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