Watchdog: Graffiti advertises to a captive audience

July 02, 2011|By Liz F. Kay, The Baltimore Sun

The problem: Graffiti advertising bail bondsmen remained on a wall near Central Booking for weeks.

The backstory: Baltimore's bail bondsmen often employ memorable marketing methods to get their names and contact information ingrained in the memory of potential customers.

But some companies may have moved beyond free pens and vinyl-wrapped vehicles and into a less sanctioned medium — graffiti.

Several weeks ago, Baltimore Sun business reporter and BaltTech blogger Gus Sentementes noticed phone numbers advertising bail bondsmen painted on the wall that forms the on-ramp to Interstate 83 along the west side of the Fallsway.

The three numbers were located very close to the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center on East Madison Street and may even be visible through windows to those in custody.

Sentementes noted that the advertisers had a captive audience.

Watchdog contacted Baltimore's Department of Public Works, because its Bureau of Solid Waste responds to graffiti complaints.

No one had called 311 to report the problem, said Bob Murrow, a DPW spokesman, but the agency planned to remove it as soon as possible.

Usually, graffiti complaints to 311 are resolved within three days, especially if the offending marks are on easily accessible public property, he said. If the vandalism is on private property, city workers must obtain permission from the owner before sandblasting it off or painting it over.

"The faster we can get out there and remove it, the less kind of joy time the graffiti artist has," Murrow said. "It kind of kills their thrill if we remove it quickly."

But most of Baltimore's graffiti falls into the category of tagging, not advertising, he said.

"This kind of thing is kind of novel," Murrow said.

However, one DPW official did remember similar advertising graffiti in that spot before, he said.

DPW alerted the city's Department of Housing and Code Enforcement to investigate before the numbers were removed. The agency waits for code enforcement action before cleaning up illegal dumping as well, he said. "We don't want to remove the evidence before it's properly investigated," Murrow said.

DHCD spokeswoman Tania Baker said code enforcement inspectors are continuing to investigate the perpetrators "to make sure their actions are held accountable."

"We do know they're associated with bail bonds businesses," she said.

The three acts of vandalism are subject to citations for illegally posting signs on city property, subject to fines of $200, Baker said. The information will be forwarded to DPW so they can bill those responsible for the cleanup, she said.

Watchdog also called the numbers. One that was posted twice next to the phrase "bail bondsman" and "bail bond" came up on an Internet search to a Facebook page for UpTown Bail Bondsman. A person who answered the phone "bail bondsman" declined to comment.

Another number, next to the phrase "1%," was listed on webpages for Concrete Bail Bonds as the office number for bail bond agent Constance Bennett.

Both UpTown and Concrete are licensed insurance producers (the new term, as opposed to agent) in Maryland that are authorized to provide bail bonds, said Karen Stakem Hornig, deputy commissioner of the Maryland Insurance Administration. There are no pending complaints against either business.

When reached by phone, Bennett, who is licensed as an individual, said she didn't do it. "I have no clue who possibly could have done that," she said.

A city inspector had already called her, and she said she told him she is an insurance agent. Bennett did explain that insurance agents can provide bail bonds.

However, "I can't even get collect calls," Bennett said. "It would have been of no benefit."

Her profile on LinkedIn, a social network for professionals, described her as an "insurance agent, bail bond agent."

Bennett at first said that she didn't do bail bonds, but then added that she did provide a bond recently for a friend. But she doesn't promote that service, nor is it a primary part of her business, she said.

"I look guilty, but I have no idea who could have done it," she said.

Who can fix this: Tarsha Goins, supervisor, Baltimore Department of Public Works Bureau of Solid Waste. 410-396-1300. City residents should call 311 to report problems.

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