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Marblehead Police chief didn’t consider it a good sign

Instead of the usual messages about social distancing, passersby on the Marblehead Causeway had this sign staring back at them Wednesday morning. (Photo by Peter Franklin)

Police Chief Robert Picariello is warning pranksters about the dangers of altering signs following last month’s incident in which a highway sign was changed to display a cheeky message. 

On Aug. 26, a programmable LED message board — located on Ocean Ave. near Devereux Beach — was hacked into by an unknown party and reprogrammed to prominently display the words “God is Gay.” 

Although many were amused by the supposed prank, Picariello said road signs often depict important messages meant to keep drivers safe, adding that the changed board in question initially provided readers with information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It’s a bad idea for people to change signs like that,” Picariello said. “There was a very important message on there. We’re in the middle of a pandemic and we’re trying to keep our numbers low, so having people practice proper social distancing, wearing masks, et cetera is the message we want to portray on there. We certainly don’t appreciate people messing with the signboards.”

Officers were initially notified of the hack around 6:23 a.m., when a resident called to report the unusual message. 

According to Marblehead Police, officers were quickly dispatched to confirm the change and to check that the sign’s program compartment was still locked. 

Marblehead’s Highway Department was then notified, and the sign, which was otherwise undamaged, was switched back to its original messaging by 6:53 a.m.

“We changed it back very quickly after it was discovered and we’ve since secured it so such things can’t happen again,” Picariello said. 

This isn’t the first time pranksters have changed a highway sign to send a message. 

In 2016, hackers in Portland, Maine, changed three road signs throughout the city to read “YOU SUCK” for a total of three hours on the morning of Aug. 24 before they were switched back by city contractors. 

In response to the crude statement, the New Hampshire Department of Transportation posted a photo of one of the signs to their Facebook page, adding: “How rude! A lesson from Portland, Maine of the need for contractors (and DOTs) to protect their electronic message boards from hackers.”

Also in summer 2016, residents of Dallas, Texas, were hit with a slew of bizarre sign changes that, among other messages throughout the course of a week, accused President Donald Trump of being a “shape shifting Lizard” and told commuters that work was canceled and they should go home.

State officials were not amused. 

“These signs were secured and turned off until someone broke into them to enter these messages,” a spokesman said in a statement. “Such actions endanger the safety of themselves and motorists, and the messages could also become a distraction to motorists driving on the highway.”

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