It’s a hot Internet business: Get mugshots for free from government websites, put them on your own websites and then demand money when irate people plead to have their photos removed.
The mugshot websites say they are simply providing a service that many people love to view, while critics say they’re the latest example of how the Internet and social networking is severely reducing people’s privacy.
Near the epicenter of this trend is Rob Wiggen, 33, a Florida ex-con with a talent for computer programming who operates Arrests.org, posting daily hundreds of new mugshots mined from law enforcement websites in Florida and four other states.
While many mugshot websites have buttons directly linking to paying for removal, Wiggen told Wired Magazine last year that he works with intermediaries, such as Removeslander.com, charging them $9.95 to $19.90 to remove a photo with automated software.
Removeslander, which boasts on its 1-800 number that it can get a photo off Florida.arrests.org within an hour, in turn charges $399 for removing a mugshot from one website, $699 for removing a photo from three websites.
Wiggen, from Flagler Beach, did not respond to Miami Herald requests for comment. A man from Removeslander who identified himself as “TJ” said he would talk only if The Herald’s online story included a hyperlink that readers could click to get to his site. “There has to be something in it for me,” he said. The Herald refused, and TJ did not respond to questions.
For some websites, legal issues could be involved. Parry Aftab, a New Jersey lawyer who specializes in Internet law, suggests that if mugshot publishers ask for money to remove embarrassing information, they could be accused of extortion.
The problem for embarrassed people who have been arrested is that their mugshot can pop up on a dozen or more websites — a situation that has sparked outrage on the Web, including a website called classactionagainstmugshotwebsites.com.
On a Google group message board, one anonymous contributor complained about the exorbitant charges. “Our son was arrested on a misdemeanor, it was pre-trial diversion program, all charges dropped. Yet his picture is up there on this arrest.org website.”
An anonymous Wiggen opponent has established robwiggen.com, dedicated “to you, your immoral family and your ventures.” It includes Wiggen’s own mugshot, which doesn’t appear on his own websites, and links to the Wired story, “Mug-Shot Industry Will Dig Up Your Past, Charge You to Bury It Again.”
Wiggen, whose full name is Craig Robert Wiggen Jr., was arrested in Tallahassee in 2005, accused of making and using counterfeit credit cards, taking numbers from the cards of customers at a Mexican restaurant where a friend was a waiter, according to information filed in federal court.
The waiter used an electronic device to lift credit information. Wiggen took the numbers to produce fraudulent credit cards with which he bought about $10,000 in goods from Home Depots and other stores. Wiggen pleaded guilty and told investigators that he started in credit card fraud in 2000 when he wrote a program to transfer data from a device that skimmed credit cards to a card re-encoder, according to court documents.
In 2006, on the day he was to be sentenced, Wiggen’s attorney told the court that Wiggen “had been hospitalized as the result of an apparent overdose and/or attempted suicide.” He eventually was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison.