Mugshot Shakedown (2014 Jun)

by Barry A. Liebling

The development of the internet is one of the greatest advances to civilization. It has made the flow of information speedier and more reliable than anything before it. The internet has given people tools to accomplish tasks that were previously not possible. And, like all new technology, some people will inevitably abuse it.

The mugshot shakedown is a recent example of shady characters making trouble on the web. There are at least 50 sites that display mugshots of Americans who have been arrested. At a typical mugshot site some photos are of convicted criminals, some show people whose trials are pending, and there is an abundance of pictures of people who were detained and photographed but never convicted of a crime. Many of the mugshot sites state that they are providing a public service by informing employers, neighbors, potential friends, and the merely curious about arrest records. It is prudent, the sites proclaim, to check out a person in advance before committing to a business or personal relationship. If you want to see a large number of mugshots – free of charge – you can visit these sites.

So how do these sites make money? What is their business model? On the typical home page there is a prominent tab that offers to remove your mugshot – for a price. At, as of this writing, it costs at least $399 to have your picture and arrest record taken down. If you have been arrested twice the cost goes up to $798.

Apparently a lot of people are embarrassed to see their mugshots displayed on the internet and are paying to have them expunged. It is not clear what proportion of “customers” are innocent – that is, have not been convicted of a crime. But many “customers” who regard themselves as guiltless are unhappy that they had to spend so much to repair their reputations. Significantly, after someone pays to have a mugshot removed, the same mugshot might appear on another similar site where it again costs money to have it erased.

It is interesting that while anyone can pay the picture removal service, someone who is innocent is probably more upset than a convicted criminal when he discovers his mugshot on one of these sites. There is a built-in tendency for people most concerned with protecting their public image to be mugshot shakedown “customers.”

The mugshot shakedown is a case study where the site owners have found a way to make money by acting obnoxiously. This is qualitatively different from the way business is supposed to be conducted. Think of anything you buy voluntarily – a meal at a restaurant, clothing, furniture for your home. You expect to be pleased by the purchase, and you hope you will not be disappointed. If everything goes well you are glad you spent your money, and you have positive regard for the proprietor of the business. But when someone succumbs to the mugshot shakedown there are no good feelings. At best, the “customer” is relieved that he was able to fix a humiliating problem but resents the high price. He realizes that the problem – a mugshot viewable by anyone with access to the internet – was published by the same people he paid. Furthermore, the “customer” soon finds out that a different site – possibly affiliated with the first site – can display his mugshot and again offer to take it down for a price.

Some critics of the mugshot shakedown have said that the business amounts to extortion. But extortion refers to a situation where a villain threatens to harm his victim unless he is paid. The mugshot shakedown operators think they have found a loophole, and attorneys for some of the sites contend that extortion does not apply. The mugshot businesses do not threaten any action; they merely react to requests.

What is the best way to respond to the mugshot shakedown? Let’s start by identifying what not to do – getting the government involved and passing new laws. Reflexively, several state and federal legislators have condemned the mugshot shakedown sites and are attempting to make it illegal to charge money to remove a mugshot. Their reasoning is that if they can eliminate the profit motive, website operators will not be inclined to publish the pictures in the first place. The government solution is flawed in at least two ways. First, many of the sites operate outside of the United States and take measures to conceal the identity of their owners. It is unlikely that a new law will make much of a dent on the mugshot shakedown game. Second, and more important, new laws restricting commerce on the internet will inevitably be used by statists to trample on the freedom of everyone who uses it. Some legislators view mugshot shakedown abuse as an open invitation to expand their regulatory power. You can imagine what government-directed mischief might follow if it becomes unlawful to charge a fee for modifying a website. Meddling regulators will have another tool to boss everyone around.

In fairness, government opponents of the mugshot shakedown make a good point; taking the profit out of the abuse will reduce it. And the free market approach is the moral and effective way to go. Concerned citizens can privately and economically put up new sites – and post comments to existing sites – that expose the mugshot shakedown game. Curious web surfers can be informed that any mugshot site that charges to take down a picture is unreliable. The mugshots represent only those who did not pay to have them removed. Potential “customers” of the mugshot shakedown can be informed that it is useless to pay because doing so will only encourage other sites to begin the process again.

There will always be scoundrels who use the internet to prey on others. And accurate information – via the internet – can be used to thwart their malicious intentions.

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