California Attorney General Charges Operators of Alleged Cyber Exploitation Website

On May 16 ,2018, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced charges of extortion, money laundering and identity theft against four defendants allegedly connected to Mugshots.com. The website utilizes data from law enforcement and publishes it without consent.

According to reports, when subjects request removal of their booking photos, they are routed to another website and charged a fee to have their content removed. Allegedly, the fee is charged regardless of whether charges were dismissed.

“This pay-for-removal scheme attempts to profit off of someone else’s humiliation,” said Attorney General Becerra.  “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.”

Photos of criminal suspects taken by law enforcement agencies are public records. However, demanding a removal fee is unlawful. In 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed a law that bans the practice of charging people for the removal of their mugshots from the Internet. Numerous states have passes similar laws over the past few years.

The four named defendants are alleged to be the owners and operators of Mugshots.com. Over a three-year period, the defendants purported accumulated approximately $2M in removal fees from close to 6000 individuals.

Victims included an individual that spent a night in jail but was not charged with a crime, an individual that has the same name as his deceased father who had also spent a night in jail but was not charged with a crime, and an individual whose conviction was overturned, an individual who was arrested but the charges were later dropped,

Reportedly, the alleged website operators were not easy to locate. Warrants had to be obtained to permit state investigators to search records maintained by Internet companies and financial institutions. Consequently, investigators determined that the business was registered in Nevis, the domain name was registered in Belize the hosting company was based in Australia.

The investigation was led by the Northern California Computer Crimes Task Force. The CA OAGs office is presently seeking the defendants’ extradition to California. Of course, charges in a criminal indictment are merely allegations and defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

The website’s “Disclaimer Notice” states that “All are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Published mugshots and/or arrest records are previously published public records of an arrest, an indictment, a registration, the deprivation of liberty or a detention. The mugshots and/or arrest records published on Mugshots.com are in no way an indication of guilt and they are not evidence that an actual crime has been committed. Arrest does not imply guilt, and criminal charges are merely accusations. A defendant is presumed innocent unless proven guilty and convicted. For latest case status, contact the official law enforcement agency which originally released the information.”

If you believe you are a victim of Mugshots.com, contact an Internet law attorney, file a police report with your local police department and contact the Attorney General’s eCrime Unit. If you do not reside in California, complaints should be reported to the Internet Crime Complaint Center.

Richard B. Newman is an Internet law attorney at Hinch Newman LLP focusing on advertising and digital media matters. His practice includes conducting legal compliance reviews of advertising campaigns, representing clients in investigations and enforcement actions brought by the Federal Trade Commission and state Attorneys General, commercial litigation, advising clients on promotional marketing programs, and negotiating and drafting legal agreements.  

ADVERTISING MATERIAL. These materials are provided for informational purposes only and are not to be considered legal advice, nor do they create a lawyer-client relationship. No person should act or rely on any information in this article without seeking the advice of an attorney. Information on previous case results does not guarantee a similar future result. Hinch Newman LLP | 40 Wall St., 35th Floor, New York, NY 10005 | (212) 756-8777.

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