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.
While Wiggen’s website appears to have been one of the first, many mugshot competitors have been cropping up. Many allow viewers to search by categories, such as celebrities, hotties, ugly, scary and hunks. The ownership of the websites is almost always concealed behind a third-party agent. Arrest.org’s registered agent is in Panama.
The websites have different ways of operating.
Orlandocriminals.com has a link by each photo “Remove this Mugshot,” which connects people to mugshoteraser.com, which offers to delete the photo for $50 to $100, depending on how fast the person wants it done.
Mugshots.com has a link on its home page to unpublisharrest.com, promising to “unpublish within hours,” charging $399 for one arrest, up to $1,479 for four arrests.
MugshotsUSA.com offers Florida mugshots for most counties. The site carries an ad for InternetReputation.com, which offers to provide a “clean, clear online reputation.”
Lookwhogotbusted.com has a “Buy Now” button that offers to remove a mugshot for $29.95 paid via PayPal.
None of these websites responded to Miami Herald inquiries.
Most websites carry disclaimers, such as the one at Arrest.org, which says: “No claims to the accuracy of this information are made.”
Aftab, the New Jersey lawyer, said that may not protect the website owners. She said anyone can legally post any government documents, including mugshots, but if the websites charge for removing the pictures, “it smacks of extortion to me.” She said websites could be legally liable now, and “if there isn’t a law, there should be.”
In fact, Classactionagainstmugshotwebsites.com contains petitions, including one for Florida legislators, asking for a law that prohibits websites from using state legal documents “for financial gain through advertising and/or by specifically requesting payment for removal of pictures.”
Florida is a target of both the websites and their opponents because the state has a strong public records law and mugshots are easily accessible. Some newspaper websites in Florida now post daily booking mugshots, finding them to be a highly popular draw, and often have advertising near the mugshots, but none offer to take money for photo removal.
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, said public access to mugshots, as with any government document, is an important part of citizens knowing what their government does. She cites an example in which a police department didn’t want to release the mugshot of an officer accused of molesting a child, arguing that Florida law exempts officers’ mugshots from publication. The press fought and won that battle, and the publication of the mugshot led to other victims recognizing him and coming forward.
The public domain
Petersen said she was recently approached by the wife of a security-cleared scientist arrested for being drunk and disorderly. He’d hired an expensive attorney and charges were dropped, but his mugshot was still on a mugshot website. “She wanted me to do something about it.” Petersen told her: “Sorry, you simply have to suck it up.”
In fact, Petersen agrees with Aftab, the lawyer, that the solution should be in the courts. “When they want $400 to take down a photo, that’s not a service, that’s extortion.”
Meanwhile, other issues are popping up.
One is that some mugshot websites apparently find it easier to simply mine other mugshot websites rather than collect the photos on their own. That’s led to at least one lawsuit, in which Citizens Information Associates, owner of Bustedmugshots.com, a Texas company, has sued JustMugshots.com, a Minneapolis site, accusing it of stealing Busted’s mugshots.
The federal lawsuit, filed in Texas, said Busted “has spent thousands of dollars … to obtain these records,” growing its database to more than four million records. Busted alleged it had proof JustMugshots was taking its photos, because when Busted made a temporary error in information linked to 200 photos, JustMugshots repeated the error.
JustMugshots fired back on its website that it found the allegations “funny” since all the mugshots are “in the public domain.”