One of the most insidious businesses to grow out of the prison industrial complex revolves around mug shots. Natural curiosity compels many people to view jail booking photos taken by law enforcement agencies when someone is arrested, which are usually considered public records. Profiteers are now using publicly-available mug shots to generate profit.
Booking photos catch people at one of the worst moments of their lives; many have blank stares following the shock of being arrested. Some, like the infamous mug shot of Nick Nolte with frazzled hair while wearing a Hawaiian shirt, can be entertaining. That entertainment value, and a desire to see whether someone they know has been busted, drives the public’s interest in jail booking photos. The result is that mug shots have become very popular – particularly on websites devoted to that topic.
And when something is popular, someone will find a way to make money off it. With respect to mug shot-related sites, profit can be generated in two ways. The first is from advertising revenue by providing ad space on the websites, which are attractive to advertisers because they tend to generate high Internet traffic. The other is by posting people’s mug shots online and then charging them to remove their photos.
In the latter regard, “[t]he business model seems to be to generate embarrassment and then remove the source of embarrassment for a fee,” explained Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists. “So the whole practice is designed to exploit human weakness.”
The website Busted in Acadiana (BIA), which posted local mug shots from Lafayette, Louisiana, exemplified that practice with its Facebook tagline: “When you get arrested, your business becomes our business.” BIA not only posted mug shots but also comments from its tens of thousands of Facebook followers, who often poked fun at or made humiliating remarks about the people whose photos were featured on the site.
BIA’s tactics were “downright despicable” according to one University of Louisiana at Lafayette student, who did not want to be identified.
“One day I saw BIA had posted a kid’s information and his girlfriend’s picture just for the sake of harassment,” the student stated. “The kid simply said he thought Busted in Acadiana was distasteful and that he disagreed with it. The BIA admin started posting information off the kid’s Facebook page, such as his address and work info, and then encouraged people to call and harass him. Then, the BIA admin went to the kid’s girlfriend’s page and took her profile picture and posted it on BIA. That is when I was determined to be very outspoken against BIA. My goal was originally to expose the identity of the admin of BIA if at all possible.”
Even the innocent were not immune from harassment by BIA. For example, a man was arrested for unauthorized use of an access card in July 2011. After his arrest it was determined there was a misunderstanding, and he was released within minutes of being taken to jail. Yet, like many others, his mug shot was posted on BIA’s website.
When the man’s wife emailed BIA to explain what happened and to request the removal of her husband’s photo, BIA began flooding her inbox with messages. It then proceeded to publish her email in its entirety, including her name, place of employment, email address and work phone number. BIA contacted her company’s IT department and she ended up losing her job. The man’s mug shot was eventually removed, though.
The student who set out to unmask the operator behind BIA was successful. By tracking down the registration information for domain names associated with the website, he learned the operator was Lafayette resident Christopher Hebert, 37. Ironically, Hebert has a criminal record himself; he was arrested in December 2001 on charges of public intimidation, disturbing the peace by appearing intoxicated and remaining where forbidden. He pleaded guilty to one of the misdemeanor charges, paid $316.50 in fines and was placed on probation for six months. Hebert’s identity and connection with BIA was revealed in a September 21, 2011 cover story in The Independent Weekly, a Lafayette-based publication.
“We found out everything we needed to know by finding every mistake Chris made when trying to remain anonymous,” said the student. “It was very easy to do. All information obtained was done so through public record. Public record is what Chris Hebert clung to in order to justify why what he was doing was okay. It was because he was ‘simply using public record’ to extort people [by posting their mug shots], that’s why I wanted to show him how public record can be used effectively against someone.”
Interestingly, it turned out that Hebert also has ties to law enforcement. His wife, Amanda, is employed by the Lafayette Police Department. Police officials said they were investigating whether she accessed law enforcement computers on behalf of BIA.
Circumstantial evidence indicates special access, as BIA often posted the arrest records of negative commenters on the site within minutes.
Shortly before Hebert was outed as BIA’s operator, the website was shut down. That same day Hebert posted a message on his personal Facebook page thanking his friends and family for their support. “I am sorry if I have disappointed any of you by pursuing my dreams,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, when my family becomes threatened, I must set aside my dreams.”
He did not explain why his dreams included humiliating and harassing people, posting their embarrassing mug shots online, and then charging to remove them. The BIA site was taken down in September 2011 but later reinstated; it now focuses on local crime reports, does not include mug shot galleries and does not have an associated Facebook page with public comments. It is unclear whether Hebert is still affiliated with BIA.
Except for the harassment, however, BIA was largely doing the same thing as most other mug shot sites, such as www.mugshotrow.com, www.jailbase.com, www.mugshots.com, www.gotbusted.net, www.whosarrested.com, www.bustedmugshots.com and www.dailymugshot.com, among many others, as well as geographic-specific websites like www.portlandcriminals.com and www.cincymugshots.com.
Such sites post thousands of jail booking photos obtained from law enforcement agencies, and use them to generate website traffic and ad revenue. It’s a potentially huge market; according to FBI statistics there were over 13 million arrests in 2010, most of which resulted in booking photos. Further, many mug shot websites offer to remove the embarrassing pictures for a fee or are affiliated with removal services, which provides an additional revenue stream.
For example, BIA’s removal service, www.deletemymug.com, which is no longer active, charged $99. Two unrelated services, www.removemymug.com and www.removeslander.com, charge $99 and $399 respectively; the latter also claims to remove mug shot photos from Google searches. Another, www.removearrest.com, charges a variable fee depending on the number of sites where a person’s photo is posted. Removal services provided by www.unpublisharrest.com and www.unpublishmugshots.com start at $399.
Some people are willing to pay in order to have their mug shots deleted, as the photos are humiliating and can interfere with personal relationships and even finding employment. “It completely screwed with my life,” said Janet LaBarba, whose mug shot for a 2009 DUI arrest was posted online. “People Googled me and it was very embarrassing.”
Unlike the photos they post publicly, remaining anonymous is extremely important to operators of most mug shot websites, as indicated by the demise of BIA after Hebert’s identity was revealed.
KA Marketing’s Kyle Ritter, who owns 35 mug shot sites and is also known as Mug Shot Barry, kept his identity a secret until he was exposed by Portland, Oregon’s Willamette Week in August 2011. “I don’t really conceal my identity for my sake,” he said. “I didn’t want friends, family, and other folks who have no affiliation with the company to be harassed.”
He indicated that his websites do not allow the posting of public comments. “We tried allowing commenting on our sites for a few days and it was an utter disaster,” he noted. “People were posting pictures of inmate’s children, phone numbers, home addresses, spouses names, all kinds of terrible things. Racist comments were rampant. It was awful.”
One of the biggest players in the mug shot website business is http://florida.arrests.org, which has over four million booking photos. Like the original BIA site, florida.arrests.org is operated by someone who has had his own mug shot taken.
Florida ex-con Rob Wiggen, 32, served three years in prison for participating in a small-time credit card skimming scheme. “Of course, I’m not going to have my mug on my site,” he stated, when questioned about his online endeavors.
Wiggen said his website has earned him enemies, and that he receives about 100 angry emails and a few letters via snail mail a day from people whose photos are posted on his site. “Obviously, they’re really nasty,” he said. “I never thought I’d get this backlash from individuals. I just never imagined it.” His website generates revenue from Google Ad-Sense banners and by advertising for defense lawyers and bail bondsmen. He also receives income from having mug shots removed.
The founder of www.bustedmugshots.com, Kyle Prall, located in Travis County, Texas, defended his business. “We are publishing public records with an interest in informing the community,” he stated. “We have never approached anybody attempting to generate revenue from them to remove a record from our database.”
Which is true – rather, mug shot websites wait until people contact them to have their photos deleted, then charge them to do so or refer them to a removal service. Some sites will remove mug shots for free if the charges that resulted in the booking photo were dismissed or the defendant prevails at trial. Otherwise, people must pay to have their pictures removed.
Like Wiggen and Hebert, Prall has also had empirical experience with the criminal justice system; he was found guilty of illegal consumption of alcohol as a minor, delivering/manufacturing marijuana, trespassing into a car and drunk driving, and served jail time. He has not put his own mug shots on his website.
To avoid having his clients’ booking photos posted on mug shot sites, Florida criminal defense lawyer Daniel Haenel advises them to turn themselves in to small town sheriff’s offices. “I have them go to a county I know they are not scraping [online] data from,” he remarked. If a client does end up on a mug shot website, he directs them to his own removal service, www.hidemymugshot.com, which will have the offending photo taken down for $1,250. At least 25 clients have used his removal service, he said. Haenel indicated he was only involved in mug shot removal for his clients, not the general public.
Those who get caught up in the profiteering-from-mug-shot-website industry feel abused. “You know, I did make a mistake back then,” said Philip Cabibi, whose 2007 booking photo for a DUI arrest landed on Wiggen’s site. “There’s a difference between having it available on the county jail website ... then to have it return on the first page of Google when you google your name. It seems like ... extortion to me.”
Perhaps because that’s basically the business model of mug shot sites and their affiliated removal services. Not surprisingly, there is sometimes collusion between websites that post booking photos and the online services that re-move them for a fee. Wiggen, for example, said he had provided www.removeslander.com and other removal services with a method to delete mug shots from his website within minutes, after they send him a small payment.
Meanwhile, on October 5, 2011, former BIA operator Christopher Hebert was arrested and charged with stalking and cyberstalking. According to a police report, he is accused of harassing and threatening a woman by phone and over the Internet since November 2010. The charges are reportedly not related to BIA. Hebert was jailed under a $50,000 bond and later released; his mug shot is currently posted on a number of websites.
Sources: www.theind.com, www.wired.com, www.in.reuters.com, www.katc.com, www.wweek.com
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login