They are strapped to stop signs and light poles, on display all over highway medians. Sometimes they are lined up a dozen deep, like one-dimensional soldiers, seeking to grab the attention of passersby.
Illegal signs. Depending on where you stand, they are either expressions of free speech in a commercial economy, or visual spam and nothing more than mounted litter.
Now two towns in Florida, Oakland Park and Hollywood, are planning to fight these "snipe signs," which they consider landscape pollution, with an innovative tactic. They'll give the businesses that spam streets and private property with illegal signage a taste of their own medicine in the form of robocalls.
The signs are an "eyesore," said Tim Lonergan, 50, a project manager at an insurance company and resident of Oakland Park. "The signs advertise anything from buying cars to health club memberships to carpet cleaning to 'we'll purchase your house,' where people are trying to invest in real estate." Lonergan has even seen signs nailed into palm trees on private property, he said. "Everyone seems to have jumped on board and is doing it."
He said he was moved to become a community activist after he attended a program about local government two years ago.
"I wanted to get involved with the city," he said. "I started making a note of where we were having problems with snipe signs, take pictures of them, and started meeting with the city."
Oakland Park, an eight-square-mile community of about 43,000, has struggled with what to do about the signs. The local sheriff's office has told Lonergan that their hands are tied unless they actually witness someone placing the signs, and most signs seem to pop up under cover of night, he said.
The town is hoping the robocalls will do the trick. Last week, the mayor and city commission authorized the effort.
The city approved working with a vendor called Call-Em-All to call the phone numbers on the signs, informing businesses of the illegal placement of their signs and letting them know that the only way to stop robocalls is to pay a fine, said David Rafter, a city spokesman.
Oakland Park isn't the first to put robocalls to work in this way. Hollywood, Fla., began its robocalling program in March. Hollywood Mayor Peter Bober said his city has seen "great results" from the initiative, which he conceived of while he was driving around town two years ago.
At the time, the city had just completed a contest in which it offered a $500 reward to the person who could collect the most signs. Though the contest was "very successful," he said, signs re-appeared over time.
After the city initiated the robocalling program, city police estimate the illegal signs have decreased by 70 percent.
Bober said the city is spending only $300 for the robocalls and that it's well worth the investment. "City employees were going out every week to pick up these signs, squandering city resources that could be better spent on other things," Bober said, "particularly when we have these difficult financial times and we need to stretch dollars as much as we can.''
Businesses that do call to stop the robocalling pay $75 for the first penalty, $150 for the second and $250 for the third time. The mayor said companies from as far as Ohio have called the city to stop the robocalling.
Bober said it was "great" that Oakland Park is copying Hollywood's program. He said he's fielded calls from towns all over the U.S. and Canada.
"I'm glad other cities are following suit as a lot of other cities are seeing the same budgetary issues like we are and we have better ways to spend employees' time," he said. "I'm glad it's catching fire."
When asked whether consumers who receive robocalls could simulate the city's program, he said the thought has occurred to him when he receives spam text messages on his cell phone.
"I'm sure there are other applications if we all put our heads together like this," he said.