There's A Public Shaming Industry (And It Held Me Hostage)
Take a moment to remember the absolute lowest point of your life. Now imagine that A) multiple photos were taken of it, and B) those photos so thoroughly saturate the internet that a search of your name turns up almost nothing but that. No, you're not a celebrity who went on a racist tirade at the Oscars; you're a random nobody who happened to get a mugshot taken.
Thanks to a thriving online mugshot publication industry, the worst day (and hair) of your life can live forever, even if it was all a big misunderstanding and the charges were later dropped. Trying to get rid of those pictures is a nightmarish -- and expensive -- task which requires dealing with some truly sleazy people.
We talked to "Will," who has both a clean legal record and a colorful web presence he's trying desperately to clean up. He told us ...
Your Worst Moment Can Be Endlessly Cross-Posted
Up to one-third of you have been arrested at some point, so the following story is likely not unfamiliar, though the details may be slightly different. For example, it's statistically unlikely that you suffer from literally hellish hallucinations and delusions.
Will does, and each of his five mugshots captures him in the throes of a mental health crisis -- the result of his unfortunate decision to go off the medication that kept his visual hallucinations at bay. Under the influence of out-of-whack brain chemicals (and, at one point, shrooms), he believed he'd entered the afterlife, where personal property and consequences had been abolished. The fallout was a felony possession charge, as well as a few counts each of theft and trespassing.
Your standard "Briefly disconnected from reality" special.
"I was only vaguely aware that I was being arrested," he says. "The first thing that I thought of when I arrived at the jail was that I was in a time machine." Finally, someone thought to offer him a trip to the hospital instead. After completing treatment, he had all of his charges dismissed in recognition of the fact that he had been completely untethered from reality for a bit. He put the whole thing behind him and went about getting his shit together. So he's free to move on with his life, right?
One night, Will decided to Google himself before he started looking for work. What he found, over and over again, were his mugshots. Not just a few snaps that could be mistaken for normal selfies, either. In total, there were about 30 different websites that displayed his photos and charges 74 times. All from that same crazy, forgotten week ... and not a single site noted that the charges had been dropped.
Luckily, employers see people the same way the legal system does:
innocent until proven guilty.
Will had found out that many law enforcement agencies in the U.S. make arrest photos available online. That's helpful when someone needs to be identified or you need to know why your mom hasn't come home, but it was only a matter of time before sites figured out how to exploit them for fistfuls of dubious cash. Their justification is often pitched as a noble one -- the public needs to know about dangerous people in their midst, for reasons probably regarding The Children. But if you visit any of these sites, it's obvious that the driving force is the same behind People of Walmart: public mockery of strangers looking their worst. Note how you can tag this mugshot:
"The tags are important! Otherwise, someone searching for beat-up handicapped hunks might get inaccurate results."
That's tasteless enough as it is, but it's actually a fairly sophisticated form of extortion. For you see ...
You Can Pay (Exorbitant Amounts) To Have Them Removed (Sometimes)
Many of these websites feature helpful little buttons inviting you to remove your mugshot. They look so friendly that you expect them to even offer to help you clean up that tea you just spilled all over yourself. But what lies beyond is often nothing but more screwery. Of the 30 websites where Will found his mugshot, four blatantly charged removal fees in excess of $100 per mugshot. One charged $399 for a single removal.
"You can't pay the fee without a job, and can't get a job because of us? Sounds like you need our 'Get a payday loan and cough it the fuck up' package."
If Will had decided to pay up at all the websites that required it, he would've been out $1,393. For the low, low price of 100 Millenium Falcons made out of Legos, he could make it so that googling his name wouldn't immediately bring up pages of sites accusing him of a crime he wasn't guilty of. If he decided to do so, neither MasterCard, American Express, Discover, nor PayPal would have processed the payment, as they no longer service these sites, on ethical grounds. This shit is too shady for credit card companies.
But many sites don't charge for removal, either out of dedication to their altruistic mission statements or to dodge various state laws. What's their angle? Advertising, usually.
No more flattering setting for your ad than photos of beaten-up meth cooks.
The owner of the mug in question isn't the only one who can get conned. Of the websites that didn't charge Will for removal, 12 offered to sell his background report to anyone who was interested, which often transitions into a monthly subscription scheme. Two sites charged for removal while offering to sell his background information at the same time, having apparently undergone an extreme shortage of fucks. Speaking of which, one website bizarrely offered to sell his original mugshots at $1.99 a pop, like the world's saddest trading cards.
"Give you three 'drunk and disorderlies' for your 'conspiracy to commit arson.'"
These practices kind of undermine the whole "protect the children" thing -- it's not clear how having money makes a person less dangerous than having their charges dropped -- and they've also been officially referred to as extortion in more than one state legislature. For the most part, though, it's legal extortion, which it seems is a thing. Because this information is considered public record, mugshot website operators fall back on the old "free speech" argument. Thankfully, Will happened to get arrested in Oregon ...
The Law Is Sometimes On Your Side, But Good Luck Enforcing It
In 2014, Oregon enacted HB 3467, which requires mugshot websites to remove Oregonians' arrest info when presented with a written request and proof of dropped charges -- and they have to do it within 30 days, for free. It's one of 12 states that have passed some kind of law regulating the mugshot industry. It seems like it would be a lot easier to make a "Hey, police, maybe stop putting mugshots online" law, with that official title if possible, but they tried that and couldn't get it passed. Even Northwest hippies are a little wary of telling cops what to do.
When such a request was sent to "Mugshot Barry" of pdxmugshots.com, he was eager to insist that the law didn't apply:
Mugshot Barry, for all his grandstanding, honored the request anyway.
If a site still refuses -- because, ironically, you are not dealing with people who have a ton of respect for the law -- there are some options. As one Oregon attorney explained, Will can repeat his removal requests via certified mail to each of these websites and wait 30 days, make a list of the websites that are stonewalling him, and then take legal action ... if he can find them.
Guess who gets to pay for all that postage? Go on, guess.
Yeah, this is, after all, the internet. It's impossible to find a mailing address for half these websites, the majority of which use private domain registration. And that's assuming that Will, or anyone else who's been branded by these sites, has the considerable time and money that legal action requires. What, you didn't think these sites were preying on a certain class of people?
To date, 26 of Will's removal requests have been honored, but his mugshot still lives on 17 different websites, and he has little recourse against them. That's a bummer, for sure. But it hasn't even begun to get weird yet.
It's An Incestuous Industry
Stay with us now, because it's about to get a little "corkboard stuck with pins connected by a cat's cradle of red string" up in here. The process of submitting removal requests revealed some suspicious patterns between websites that did not appear related. For example, several of them sent the following replies to removal requests, which are identical down to the word.
It's as though they all came from the same source ...
... which used the Zendesk mailing service.
A total of 12 different websites sent out that copypasta. All 12 used the same seemingly random number in the URL for Will's mugshot (a pretty good indication that they were pulled from the same database), and five even employed the same customer service rep. (Shout-out to Marie! How you doin', girl?)
Four more also sent identical responses, though different from the one above, and two openly redirect to each other. Plain old court records reveal that Busted Mugshots and Mugshots Online are owned by the same guy, while a completely different guy owns Criminal Faces, Find Mugshots, and Got Mugshots (whose print campaign was markedly less successful than its predecessor, given the difficulty of wiping mugshots across your upper lip).
It's almost as if a small but privileged group realized they can park the same mugshot on several different websites, charge a separate fee to remove each, legally collect that fee in the majority of U.S. states, and only get hauled into court occasionally, and even then, only somewhat successfully.
But buckle up. This is a conspiracy that goes straight to the bottom, and we ain't done yet.
There Are (Seemingly) Separate Industries That Profit
We've recently told you about online reputation management firms -- the guys you hire to clean up any nastiness that pops up on Google about you -- and how they hire people to write fake reviews. So there are services like that which handle this mugshot bullshit too, right? Yep, and they're really effective! They get better results than professional attorneys!
Want to know how? Because they're the same ones who are running the mugshot sites. Yep, they're sometimes outright owned by the same people. Rob Wiggen, the owner of arrests.org, told Wired that he provided one reputation-management company with a special URL that would automatically remove any mugshot for $9.95 -- a service the company provided at a markup of (no joke) about 4,000 percent. Wiggen claimed it was widespread industry practice. This is one way for sites that don't accept money for removal (which, as our friend Mugshot Barry helpfully pointed out, makes them exempt from the law) to profit from it, while allowing someone else to profit as well, who may very well be the same person. It's like finding out a Lannister impregnated a Targaryen who had twins who then somehow impregnated each other. It's incest all the way down.
SHAME! *bell ring* SHAME! *bell ring* SHAME!
The connections are often so blatant that a product placement executive would be like "Dude, tone it down." Some of those friendly "request removal" buttons cut out the nonexistent middle man and send you straight to a reputation management website. They might even be hosted on the same server. When you click on the "remove your online information" link on countyjail.com, it redirects you to ...
Better than linking directly to extortion.com, but not by much.
So it's no coincidence that after Will emailed a removal request to countyjail.com, he received the following unsolicited email from Erase Mugshots.
Pictured: the site screwing him over in the first place disguised in the digital equivalent of Groucho Marx glasses.
Asked how he got Will's email address, "Tyler King" replied, "We purchase leads through a third-party lead generation company." Yeah, we bet we can guess which one. When Will didn't respond to the email, Tyler ran his name anyway and provided a list of a couple dozen links where Will's mugshot appeared. Tyler also kindly provided a cost estimate for getting it all removed:
Maybe we'll lose some of our journalistic impartiality by saying this, but fuck you forever, Tyler.
That's right, $8,650. That's about $234 per link, which is higher than many of these websites charge directly. Will still receives emails from Erase Mugshots, as well as their somewhat redundant branch, Clear Background Check, as well as the occasional free-agent private investigator with a decidedly unprofessional Yahoo address claiming to have a crack legal team on retainer. Will's arrest info has been online for a couple of years, but these emails only started coming when he tried to scrub his mugshots.
That's not to say that every mugshot website has a blood alliance with an online reputation management company, or vice versa. Many are probably perfectly happy to extort you themselves, or simply keep raking in the ad cash and telling you to go fuck yourself. We're just putting it out there for the purpose of public knowledge. You know, like they do with the mugshots.
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For more insider perspectives, check out 6 Brutal Things You Experience As An Ex-Convict and 6 Ugly Things I Learned About American Prisons (As A Guard).
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