By KELLI KENNEDY, Associated Press
HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (AP) — The cheap signs smashed into lawns and along the corners of busy intersections are hard to miss. "We Buy Junk Cars!" ''Cash for Your House!" ''Computer Repair." The eyesores have vexed Hollywood Mayor Peter Bober for the past few years as he wastes valuable resources plucking up the signs only to watch them pop up in even greater numbers.
While stopped at a red light a few months ago, Bober studied the unsightly signs and came to a realization that would help him fight their proliferation: The criminals had left their calling cards in the form of business phone numbers.
"These people want us to call them, so let's call them so much their head spins," said Bober, who bought a $300 software program in March that makes robocalls to the businesses. The volume of calls has reached as high as 20 calls each to 90 businesses in a day.
The signs are eye-catching and cheaper than a billboard, and businesses place them mostly along the sidewalks and medians of high-traffic intersections where there are no homeowners to complain. Companies can blanket an area with signs for a few hundred dollars and have been emboldened to continue because there have been virtually no consequences.
To city officials, the signs are costly litter that require city workers to pick them up. Posting them is also a crime, a relatively minor offense that carries fines of up to $250 in Hollywood.
Bober and the company that sold Hollywood its software say they've gotten calls from other communities asking about using the software to fight the signs. A county in north Florida also uses the software to fight signs along picturesque beachfront roads.
Officials in Hollywood had struggled with how to discipline the companies because they are sometimes based in another state where they don't have jurisdiction.
In 2009 Bober held a citywide contest, offering $500 of non-public funds to whoever collected the most signs. The signs were gone overnight, with the winning resident collecting nearly 500 signs.
But over time, the city was again littered with signs.
"For two years I've kind of pondered what to do," the mayor said.
The robocalls, which leave pre-recorded messages, have been so successful that city officials say they've seen a 90 percent reduction of signs in some areas.
"This is a message from the City of Hollywood Police Department," the message says, going on to say signs were placed illegally and alerting companies they will receive these phone calls until the signs are removed and the owners address the code violation.
The company that makes the calling software, Voicent, says New York City uses it to send emergency transit alerts and that the Federal Emergency Management has incorporated the robocalls in its Gulf Coast hurricane-warning system. Churches and political campaigns also use the software.
Jerry Scharf, marketing director of the California based software company Voicent, said Wednesday that 1,000 communities in the U.S. and Canada have downloaded the program. It couldn't immediately be verified how many are using it to fight the nuisance signs.
The company expects sales to grow in China where the signs are especially problematic. In Hangzhou, China, the software is referred to by a name that translates as "Call You to Death," Scharf said.
In Hollywood, companies who want their number removed from the robocall list have to come to city hall, acknowledge the signs have been picked up and pay a fine. Fines range from $75 to $250 depending on how many violations a company has had. So far only seven companies have shown up and received citations, though dozens have been targeted with robocalls, Bober said.
City officials did not immediately provide a list of which companies had been cited and paid the fine when requested by The Associated Press.
A few signs still remained in the city this week, including ones advertising an 866 number for DNA paternity testing for $235 and a hand-scrawled sign to buy auction cars. The companies did not return phone calls seeking comment.
In nearby Oakland Park, Fla., the city commission approved an automated online message system from a different vendor than Voicent. The city can use it at whim when the signs are especially prolific. Each call is about nine cents, said city code enforcement administrator Jay Quier.
The city hasn't used the system yet, saying there's been a lull in signs since tax season ended.
"You've been a nuisance to us now we're going to be a nuisance to you, turn the tables on them," said Quier. "We hate to be that way."
Just south of Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale officials are also struggling with signs that littered a busy intersection this week advertising child support reductions and credit repairs, including a sign from Caravan Credit Services.
But company officials said they didn't order the sign spam.
"It must have been an old sign. We stopped doing that," said Ross Linthicum, executive vice president of the Houston-based company. "A couple of salesmen took it upon themselves to do that. ... You do get people that still go out there and do it, but it's in our paperwork not to do it."
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