by Chad Marks
Four people have been charged with extortion, money laundering and identity theft by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
In May 2018, Sahar Sarid, Kishore Vidya Bhavnanie, Thomas Keesee and David Usdan, allegedly the operators of Mugshots.com and Unpublisharrest.com, found themselves on the wrong side of the law and ironically had to face the camera for their own mugshots. They are accused of publishing booking photos online and then demanding fees to remove them.
One of the scheme’s victims, identified only as Jesse T., who was arrested and booked into jail but never charged with a crime, found his photo on Mugshots.com. When he requested to have his picture removed, he was told he would have to pay $399. After he refused, someone from the website told him he was a “fucking bitch” and that his photo would be published permanently.
In another case where a man’s conviction was overturned on appeal after he served nine years in prison, he was told it would cost $500 to have his mugshot removed. The man paid the fee because he felt having his booking photo posted online was hurting his business.
Becerra’s office reported that Sarid, Bhavnanie, Keesee and Usdan scammed at least $64,000 in removal fees from 175 Californians; nationwide, it was alleged their scheme netted more than $2 million in removal fees from over 5,700 people. A similar investigation is being pursued in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, and the four defendants could find themselves facing additional charges.
According to law enforcement officials, the operators of Mugshots.com were hard to find. Warrants were needed to search records maintained by Internet companies, including Google, and by financial institutions like Bank of America in order to identify them. The Mugshots.com website, which remains active, is registered in the West Indies; the domain name was reportedly registered in Belize and the site hosted by an Australian company.
While photos of criminal suspects taken by law enforcement agencies are usually considered public records, publishing them and then demanding a fee to take them down can be considered a crime. At least 18 states have laws that prohibit charging fees to remove mugshots posted online. [See: PLN, Sept. 2017, p.54].
“This pay-for-removal scheme attempts to profit off of someone else’s humiliation,” Becerra stated. “Those who can’t afford to pay into this scheme to have their information removed pay the price when they look for a job, housing, or try to build relationships with others. This is exploitation, plain and simple.”
Sarid, Bhavnanie, Keesee and Usdan can be assured that their mugshots will likely be published permanently online, the same way that Jesse T. was told his would be.
Sarid and Keesee were arrested in Florida, while Bhavnanie was taken into custody in Pennsylvania and Usdan was arrested in Connecticut. Their bond was set by a Los Angeles judge at $1.8 million, and Usdan and Bhavnanie face extradition. A class-action lawsuit against Mugshots.com, filed by people whose photos appeared on the site, remains pending. [See: PLN, Aug. 2014, p.48].
Sources: arstechnica.com, sacbee.com, courthousenews.com, lawandcrime.com
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