By Rudy Tardin
A drive down major highways around most metropolitan areas in the United States makes it near impossible to evade the towering, bright billboard advertisements lined up one after another. Many of these billboards are digital, flash ads drivers have become accustomed to over the years: cars, restaurants, alcoholic beverages and so on. However, in recent years, more ads reading the words “WANTED” and “REWARD” continue to appear on digital billboards, rotating in-between ads featuring fast cars and fast food.
The FBI takes full advantage of digital billboard technology and uses the medium as a critical tool for public awareness to catch wanted criminals and find missing persons. By showing mug shots, sketches, and other unique information, the bureau effectively uses the public for help.
This is an example of a Clear Channel billboard that was used to provide information on a wanted man. Credit: FBI
“The National Digital Billboard Initiative has been an effective media tool since its implementation in December 2007,” said M. Lee, FBI public affairs specialist, in an email response. “The FBI has profiled numerous cases related to dangerous fugitives, kidnapping victims, missing persons, and bank robbers.”
The use of digital billboards by the FBI started with the displaying of 11 fugitives in the Philadelphia area in September 2007, according to the FBI website. As a result, this idea quickly expanded to 20 metropolitan areas that included 150 digital billboards by January 2008.
Over the last five years, the digital billboard network utilized by the FBI has grown to more than 3,200 locations throughout the country, according to Lee. The bureau has a “memorandum of understanding” with seven billboard companies, including Clear Channel, Lamar, and CBS Outdoor, which provide ad space free of charge. This enables the FBI to advertise wanted criminal cases for extended periods across the country, said Lee.
The growing number of digital billboards utilized gives the FBI an advantage to reach a larger portion of the population. However, the timeliness of dispersing the message is imperative. According to Lee, who helps coordinate and request FBI advertisements to billboard companies, case agents determine the regions where criminals may be located and where wanted ads need to be displayed.
“I have turned billboards around in five to six hours. There’s a lot of moving pieces,” said Lee referring to the process of the time a case agent makes a request to the time the wanted individual springs up on a billboard.
Sometimes the FBI needs to get out urgent messages to the public regarding hot pursuits or information of individuals on the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. Because of this, the Digital Billboard Alert Network was developed in 2010 with the help of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA), a leading trade association that represents the outdoor advertising industry.
“We serve as the clearinghouse for information that we can distribute out to all of our members,” said Nicole Hayes, OAAA communications director. “We think that we can help law enforcement get a message out.”
The Digital Billboard Alert Network is an automated online system that gives the FBI, from its office, the ability to “populate a digital billboard template with a photograph of the suspect, brief information of the suspect, and a phone number to report any sightings of the suspect,” said Hayes.
In partnership with 20 billboard companies, the FBI can activate a number of digital billboards regionally, multi-state, or nationally for urgent situations in less than 15 minutes, according to an OAAA document provided by Hayes. The emergency network of participating companies is still growing. “We ask if they would like to participate, and almost all of them do,” explained Hayes. “The system clearly works.”
The wanted billboard for Michael Francis Mara, or the “Granddad Bandit.”
One of the first successes using the emergency network was the capture of Michael Francis Mara, the “Granddad Bandit,” who committed 26 robberies in 14 different states in 2010, according to Lee.
More recently in February 2012, Raffaele Mosca, who was involved in a string of bank robberies in Knoxville, Tenn., and unknown at the time, was arrested in Orlando, Fla., after a tipster caught the digital billboard ad, according to Lee.
For the FBI, the effectiveness of digital billboards proves to be an integral part of larger media campaigns, which can include email alert service, syndicated news feeds, podcasts, and online widgets. Fifty cases have been solved as a direct result of tips from billboard viewers, and many other cases have been solved where billboards played a significant role, according to Lee, and the FBI “needs to be where the people are” in order to reach out to them.
One thing is certain: if you’re wanted by the FBI, smile— you will soon be seen by the masses.
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