California Attorney General Xavier Becerra
Photo: Getty

The California Attorney General announced criminal charges against four men it claims are the owners and operators of Mugshots.com. The website has been under fire for years over its practice of scraping law enforcement websites to publish mugshots and often incomplete criminal records. It then demands large fees through a sister site for removing the information.

An affidavit obtained by Ars Technica accuses Sahar Sarid, Thomas Keesee, Kishore Vidya Bhavnanie and David Usdan, of operating the website and charges them with extortion, money laundering, and identity theft. At this point, all men are said to be in custody. In a note published on his personal website, Sarid claims that he was only involved with Mugshots.com in a “limited role” that ended in 2013.

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The notorious website has long been the most prominent example of a cottage industry designed to prey on people who have been arrested. Even in cases where no charges were brought, or suspects were found innocent, Mugshots.com kept arrest images online, making it difficult for them to do normal things like get a job or find housing. According to a statement from the Attorney General, when a victim asks to have their information removed, they’re directed to a secondary website called Unpublisharrest.com that charges a “de-publishing” fee.

The affidavit contains testimonies from 18 of the website’s victims. In one man’s case, he was arrested but never charged due to lack of evidence. After applying for more than 100 jobs and getting nowhere, some friends and family pointed out that his arrest information was widely available online. He tried to explain to a phone operator for unpublisharrest.com that he was never charged and asked that his information be removed from the site. He was told that he needed to pay $399. After refusing multiple times, the operator became abusive and refused to even accept payment thereafter.

In another case cited in the document, a woman’s husband spent a night in jail in 1998 and was never charged with a crime. He committed suicide in 2002, but their now-adult son has the same name as his father, and the mugshot is the first result when his name is searched online.

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Another victim is said to have paid the company $399 for removal but ultimately shelled out a total of $4,000 to various services. One participant in a civil suit filed in Illinois last year claimed that he was told it would cost $15,000 to take down his information.

California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra wrote, “this pay-for-removal scheme attempts to profit off of someone else’s humiliation.” Becerra claims the service brought in $64,000 in removal fees from California residents over the last three years, and over $2 million from victims nationwide.

The judge in the Illinois civil suit pushed back against the claim of extortion, but allowed it to move forward as a violation of the arrestees’ right of publicity. Scott Ciolek, an attorney who has previously sued Mugshots.com, tells Ars Technica that once the criminal case “is resolved the evidence that they have collected will be available to use by the other affected people around the country.” Not only could that help individuals sue Mugshots.com, but setting a criminal precedent would likely aid in pursuing other schemes like it.

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[Superior Court of California via Ars Technica]