Mug-Shot Industry Will Dig Up Your Past, Charge You to Bury It Again
By David KravetsEmail Author
Ex-con Rob Wiggen gets hate mail daily for running a website that hosts 4 million mug shots. Photo by James Branaman/Wired.com
Philip Cabibi, a 31-year-old applications administrator in Utah, sat at his computer one recent Sunday evening and performed one of the compulsive rituals of the Internet Age: the ego search. He typed his name into Google to take a quick survey of how the internet sees him, like a glance in the mirror.
There were two LinkedIn hits, three White Pages listings, a post he made last year to a Meetup forum for Italian-Americans in the Salt Lake City area. Then, coming in 10th place — barely crawling onto the first page of search results — was a disturbing item.
“Philip Cabibi Mugshot,” read the title. The description was “Mug shot for Philip Cabibi booked into the Pinellas County jail.”
When he clicked through, Cabibi was greeted with his mug shot and booking information from his 2007 drunk-driving arrest in Florida. It’s an incident in Cabibi’s life that he isn’t proud of, and one that he didn’t expect to find prominently listed in his search results four years later, for all the world to see.
The website was florida.arrests.org, a privately run enterprise that siphons booking photos out of county-sheriff databases throughout the Sunshine State, and posts them where Google’s web crawlers can see them for the first time. Desperate to get off the site, Cabibi quickly found an apparent ally: RemoveSlander.com. “You are not a criminal,” the website said reassuringly. “End this humiliating ordeal … Bail out of Google. We can delete the mug-shot photo.”
Cabibi paid RemoveSlander $399 by credit card, and within a day, the site had come through. His mug shot was gone from florida.arrests.org, and his Google results were clean.
“The RemoveSlander site was perfect. It seemed like it was just tailored to the mug-shot site,” Cabibi said in a recent telephone interview from Orem, Utah. “I searched ‘how to remove mug shots from florida.arrests.org,’ and the site was the first result. And I paid.”
‘Of course I’m not going to have my mug on my site.’
With that, Cabibi passed through one of the latest niche industries on the web: the mug-shot racket. Exploiting Florida’s liberal public-records laws and Google’s search algorithms, a handful of entrepreneurs are making real money by publicly shaming people who’ve run afoul of Florida law. Florida.arrests.org, the biggest player, now hosts more than 4 million mugs.
On the other side of the equation are firms like RemoveSlander, RemoveArrest.com and others that sometimes charge hundreds of dollars to get a mugshot removed. On the surface, the mug-shot sites and the reputation firms are mortal enemies. But behind the scenes, they have a symbiotic relationship that wrings cash out of the people exposed.
Florida.arrests.org is the brainchild of a computer-savvy Florida ex-con named Rob Wiggen. The 32-year-old served three years in federal prison for participating in a small-time credit-card-skimming operation (.pdf) out of a Mexican restaurant in Tallahassee.
When he got out of jail in 2007, he was looking for more legitimate opportunities. Last year he seized on the idea of repurposing the booking photos that Florida police departments are obliged to make public under the state’s sunshine laws.
The front page of florida.mugshots.org
Getting the photos is not completely straightforward: There is no central government repository. Instead, the mugshots and booking details are available on about five dozen different searchable web databases run by local police and sheriff’s departments. Wiggen said he wrote screen-scraping software to perform searches on 37 of the counties, crawling to get arrests stretching back years, and continuously polling the sites for new busts, which he scarfs down at a rate of 1,500 a day.
Robert Wiggen’s 2005 mug shot. Courtesy Leon County Sheriff’s Office
Visitors to his site can comment on the photos, or browse them by tags like “Celebrity,” “Hotties,” “Trannies,” “Tatted up” and “WTF.” Most of the photos are of adults, but children as young as 11 are also on display if they’re accused of adult crimes.
Wiggen said he wasn’t setting out to shame or embarrass anyone: From his point of view, he’s getting free content, then monetizing it with Google AdSense banners hawking defense lawyers and bail bondsmen. But the end result is that mug shots that were once hidden behind police CGI search scripts now display in Google searches, often prominently.
Wiggen’s own mug shot is noticeably absent from florida.arrests.org. “Of course I’m not going to have my mug on my site,” he told Wired.com.
His year-old business has earned him enemies. Wiggen said he receives about 100 angry e-mails, and a few snail-mail letters, every day from people whose booking photos are displayed on his site. “Obviously, they’re really nasty,” he said of the messages. “I never thought I’d get this backlash from individuals. I just never imagined it.”
Among his harshest public critics is the reputation-management company RemoveSlander.com. “Thousands of people are being criminalized by mug-shot websites that collect ad revenue at their expense!” snarls the company’s promotional YouTube video, “How To Remove Florida Arrests.org.”
“Even defendants whose cases were dismissed are finding their mugs hot on the internet,” the company’s website adds. “Every time someone clicks on your page to view your mug shots, sites like Florida Arrests earns a little more cash from Google…. We have perfected the art of fighting mug-shot websites.”
For $399, RemoveSlander promises to take that fight to florida.arrests.org, and force Wiggen to remove a mug shot. RemoveSlander’s owner, Tyronne Jacques — the author of How to Fight Google and Win! — said the removal fee pays for his crack legal team to deal with florida.arrests.org, and to force Google to get the URL removed from Google’s search index.
Asked how he accomplishes that, Jacques told Wired.com it was “a trade secret.” A recent press release from the company called the work “daunting.”
“It can’t happen by magic,” he said in a telephone interview. “There are legal means that we use…. There is a tremendous amount of work to get the photos down.”
Other sites offering the same service are also closed-mouthed about their methods. The site RemoveArrest.com often enjoys advertising right on Wiggen’s site through Google’s algorithm-driven AdSense program. Joe Ellis, the operator of RemoveArrest.com, said his method is “proprietary,” but that he’s used it to get “hundreds” of mugs removed at $129 each.
It turns out, though, removing mug shots from florida.arrest.org is not as labor-intensive or arcane a process as the reputation companies claim. The real trade secret is that Wiggen wants a small piece of the action.
Wiggen said he has provided RemoveSlander an URL for an automated takedown script on his site. A PayPal payment of just $9.95 will automatically purge a mug shot from the site. For an expedited removal from Google’s index, which Wiggen’s code performs through Google’s Webmaster tools interface, the fee is $19.90. Wiggen said other removal sites also make use of that same URL, but he declined to name them.
RemoveSlander “presses a button and makes a payment, and my website handles it automatically,” Wiggen said.
Wired.com tried the interface independently, and for $19.90 we removed the mugshot of a randomly chosen misdemeanor defendant, which disappeared from the site inside 10 minutes.
Wiggen said about 750 mugs have been removed from florida.arrests.org since he launched the site last year — some of them he took down himself in response to e-mail requests, but most were performed by reputation-management firms like RemoveSlander. He appears content to let those companies take the lion’s share of the mug-shot removal profits.
The bulk of florida.arrests.org’s income comes from advertising, not mug-shot removal fees, he said, declining to otherwise discuss his revenue. “I’m not getting rich,” he said.
‘The business model seems to be to generate embarrassment and then remove the source of the embarrassment for a fee.’
The reputation companies, though, appear to be doing pretty well. Of the $399 that Cabibi paid to RemoveSlander, $19.90 would have wound up with the mug-shot site that exposed him in the first place, and $379.10 with the company that promised to “fight” for him. By its own count, RemoveSlander has removed more than 300 mug shots.
Wired.com asked RemoveSlander’s Jacques if it’s true he’s paying $19.90 for his $399 service. That end of the business, he said, was handled by a partner, who was not available to be interviewed. Ellis, the owner of RemoveArrest.com, would neither confirm nor deny his use of the automated takedown tool.
None of this appears to be illegal, but it demonstrates an unintended consequence of state transparency laws — of which Florida’s is among the nation’s strongest.
“The business model seems to be to generate embarrassment and then remove the source of the embarrassment for a fee,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, and one of the nation’s leading open-records advocates.
“So the whole practice is designed to exploit human weakness,” said Aftergood. “From an information policy point of view, it is also likely to have adverse consequences. People are more likely to say, ‘Who needs it, let’s seal all of these records.’ That would be an unfortunate consequence.”
The State of Florida is unapologetic about the market its mug-shot posts have enabled. “We are very public-record–friendly. We are one of the most transparent states out there,” Kristi Gordon, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said. “As soon as a photo is taken at a booking facility, it becomes a public record.”
Craig Rockenstein, assistant general counsel for the department, declined to discuss the matter. “I’ve been here 25 years, and that’s the first time I was ever asked that,” he said.
The sudden ubiquity of mug-shot websites has prompted David Haenel, a Florida criminal-defense attorney, to advise clients to surrender themselves to small town sheriff’s departments where bookings are so infrequent that Wiggen and others won’t bother scraping their web sites for fresh mug shots.
“I have them go to a county I know they are not scraping the data from,” said Haenel, who practices in Sarasota, Florida.
If someone does wind up on florida.arrests.org, though, Haenel will get the photo removed for a $1,250 fee through his own website, hidemymugshot.com. Haenel said he has helped about 25 clients do that in the last two months. He said he doesn’t know anything about the $19.90 removal script, and declined to describe how he gets the mug shots removed.
Now $399 poorer, Cabibi said he feels like he’s been played.
He said his arrest came during a lapse in judgment, when he drove home intoxicated from a Florida bar after watching college football in 2007. His blood-alcohol was almost double the legal limit. He pleaded no contest, paid a fine and did six months’ probation. The Adobe applications administrator thought his past was behind him.
“You know, I did make a mistake back then,” he said. “There’s a difference between having it available on the county jail website … then to have it return on the first page in Google when you google your name. It seems like … extortion to me.”