Internet startups are a booming business, with websites touching on a seemingly endless array of subjects. Many new sites receive both wide media attention and financial backing from venture capitalists and other investors. However, bad press may have doomed one category of online sites after a string of negative stories prompted public outcry and an odd alliance of credit card companies and suspected criminals.
The culprit? Mug shot sites. Online mug shot websites have exploded in popularity in recent years and turned many people’s schadenfreude into a lucrative business model. These sites, with names like Mugshots.com, BustedMugshots.com and, creatively, JustMugshots.com, expanded rapidly with frequent viewers who were eager to peruse pictures of unfortunate criminals. The viewers translated into advertising revenues and turned several mug shot aggregating sites into cash cows. However, several high-profile articles concerning the mug shot sites, including ones in The New York Times and Businessweek, resulted in a rare step by several major financial industry players to try and put the squeeze to these sites and shut them down.
The mug shot websites work by scouring local police department and sheriff’s websites looking for the latest mug shots. These pictures then go up online, creating embarrassing and even damaging web records for some who have been arrested for a variety of criminal infractions. Articles mentioned how arrests for even minor crimes have come back to haunt otherwise upstanding individuals due to the easy searchability of these mug shot sites. Though all this is bad enough, the revelation that got the sites in hot water was the lucrative revenue stream they have been capitalizing on: payment for agreeing to remove a person’s mug shot. A common problem with mug shot websites is that they continue to display a person’s mug shot even in cases where the person goes on to have the charges dropped, is acquitted or has his or her criminal record expunged. In such cases, a concerned individual who approaches the sites and asks that their picture be removed is usually asked to fork over a fee, ranging anywhere from $25 to $400.
This outraged many people who understandably had trouble differentiating the tactic from extortion. For a fee the sites were happy to remove the mug shots, meaning that only those with money could escape online embarrassment. This also meant that in some cases wealthier offenders who had been convicted could simply pay to have their photos taken down, regardless of how serious the offense, so long as they were willing to pony up hundreds of dollars.
In response to the revelation, Google tweaked its algorithm so that many of the mug shot aggregators were downgraded in term of visibility. Though this doesn’t make pictures unsearchable, it does make them harder to find. Another group that stepped into the fray, to the shock of many, were credit card companies that process the financial transactions that keep these mug shot sites in business. Spokesmen from MasterCard, Visa and Discover announced that the actions uncovered were “repugnant” and that they intended to choke off the flow of money to the sites in an attempt to cripple them.
So far, reports indicate that progress to cut payments has been halting at best. Only American Express has confirmed that it has stopped processing payments to the sites completely. Visa and MasterCard say they are currently in the process of working with banks to cut off access to payment networks. However, until the ties are officially severed, potentially innocent individuals across the country will still be able to be extorted by the mug shot websites.