By Michael McKay
The internet has created a booming mugshot extortion racket that, by some estimates, has bilked millions of victims out of hundreds of millions of dollars. And as if the financial shake-downs weren’t bad enough, many of the people who’ve been “featured” on these websites have reported police harassment, attacks by vigilantes, job losses, evictions, and even killings as a result of their police booking photos being posted on these sites.
Here’s how the scam works: An enterprising extortionist creates a computer program that scans police department websites daily and harvests all the photos and booking information. The pics and data are then fed into a database that automatically funnels that data to be displayed on their website. The website is typically engineered with search engine optimization techniques to rank higher than the police departments’ own sites, since the police are rarely concerned with maximizing site traffic and followers. The scammers’ fully automated system is very efficient at putting people into the system; not so capable of updating and removing people whose charges were dropped or who were subsequently found to be innocent of the charges they were arrested for. This is not, by any means, an oversight on their part. After all, they make a lot more money off the innocent people, since those folks are free, have income, and are outraged.
Eventually, either the victim or someone associated with the victim finds the mugshot online and the victim loses a job, home, friends, or reputation. When the victim calls the owners of the mugshot website, they are told that the photo can be removed for a fee, which typically ranges from $200 to $1000. Many victims are outraged and walk away, but some pay the extortion fee.
Later, when they recheck the website, the photo is still there. The victim recontacts the owners, who often inform them that the fee is for each charge of the criminal complaint they were arrested for. Sometimes, they use other excuses for failing to remove the mugshots. Other times, they don’t even bother coming up with an excuse; they simply laugh and hang up.
Gregory Rakoczy’s mugshot was listed on one such website for an offense that occurred 15 years ago. As a result of the website incorrectly stating that he was still a fugitive on the run, Rakoczy has been falsely detained by the police six times. In each case, someone had seen his mugshot on Mugshots.com and called the police, reporting him as a fugitive. When he tried to have his information removed from the site, the owners charged him $399 and then did nothing.
In May 2018, the owners of Mugshots.com were arrested for extortion, money laundering, and identity theft. Despite their arrests, the website is still operating. Dozens of other similar websites are running the exact same scam. Some of them are hosted outside of the U.S., making enforcement of the law difficult or impossible in many cases.
There are other, similar websites that may not actually be committing financial extortion, but are nevertheless profiting handsomely from the misery of people who get arrested. Take TheSmokingGun.com, for example. They have a popular mugshot section that not only lists mugshots and personal data, but categorizes them into categories such as: Cleavage, Topless Men, Topless Women, College, Funny Faces, Pretty Perps, Strippers, Fogeys, and Weepers. They also invite viewers to comment on the mugshots, which invariably leads to tasteless jokes, threats, and worse. Imagine being the innocent family member of someone being ridiculed and humiliated publicly or even threatened in such a fashion.
Police Chief Trevor Whipple, of South Burlington, Vermont, says of his own department’s mugshot page, “We saw people playing off personal characteristics: ‘He doesn’t look smart. He looks like a dufus,’” Whipple recalled. “I thought: Have we run out the usefulness of this? I don’t want to have people humiliated.” On July 4, 2015, after a year of posting mugshots for the public, Whipple took the webpage down.
According to the Marshall Project, a panel of federal appeals judges weighed in on the mugshot industry last year when they denied a newspaper’s request for access to the U.S. Marshals’ booking photos and issued this observation: “Mugshots now present an acute problem in the digital age,” wrote the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ Chief Judge, R. Guy Cole Jr.. “These images preserve the indignity of a deprivation of liberty.”
It’s high time these websites were shut down permanently and their owners charged with extortion, theft, and racketeering. It’s the right thing to do.