Lawmakers, Google, and Payment Processors are Punishing Mug Shot Websites

Online, your reputation lasts forever. Comments you made 7 years ago can still be found, posted photos can be saved and shared, no matter how embarrassing. Even public records like mug shots can be accessed, exploited, and shared online. Though there’s no cure yet for hauntingly embarrassing photos and off color comments, mug shot websites that once relentlessly taunted individuals with arrest records are beginning to lose steam.

Last May, Bill explained the growing reputation management craze of mug shot websites. In a nutshell, these sites scrape mug shots from county police websites, and then post them online. The mug shot websites may rank very well, and for some, fill the first page of search engine results when searching for a person’s name. Clearly, this is terrible from a reputation standpoint, making it difficult for those featured in the photos to find a job, date, or even credit.

Often, the arrested individuals ask that the websites remove their photos. And of course they can, as long as they pay a hefty fee, usually ranging from $79 to $399. This practice has sparked several lawsuits against these websites, usually claiming extortion. But thanks to new laws, policies from Google, and action by credit card companies, the booming industry of mug shot websites has all but gone bust.

The Law Against Mug Shot Websites

Lawmakers are working to shut down these websites, and make it possible for citizens to file a lawsuit against them. Georgia state representative Roger Bruce introduced a new law that now makes it a crime for websites to charge Georgia citizens to remove their mug shot photo. Now, mug shot subjects can file a lawsuit. “Basically what happens now is if your mug shot is out there and you call them, they have 30 days to remove it,” says Bruce. “If they don’t remove it now they are in violation of the law.”

Google’s Algorithm Change Targeting Mug Shot Websites

While mug shot laws are slowly starting to be introduced in different states, including Oregon, Google and major credit card companies have moved swiftly to shut down the practice. Google launched a new algorithm in October 2013 specifically targeting mug shot websites, pushing them down so that they don’t rank highly. That means while they can still be found, individuals with photos on the mug shot websites may no longer rank in the top results for their name. According to Google’s Matt Cutts, the search engine giant was sparked to take on the mug shot websites early in 2013.

“Searches where you’d have found us on the first page, we’re now on Page 5,” said the owner of one mug shot website in an interview with the New York Times. “And there is very little we can do about that.”

Payment Processors Sever Ties with Mug Shot Websites

As part of an investigation of the mug shot website industry, New York Times reporter David Segal alerted payment processors to the fact that these websites were using their services to earn money. Nearly every company Segal spoke to dropped mug shot websites as customers, including MasterCard, PayPal, American Express, and Discover. “When mug-shot removal services were brought to our attention and we made a careful review, we decided to discontinue support for mug-shot removal payments,” say PayPal spokesman John Pluhowski.

But, Mug Shot Websites Persist — and Can Still Damage Your Reputation

Without high search engine rankings and limited methods of payment, mug shot websites seem to be cut off at the legs, much to the relief of individuals who have had their photos published on them. But while mug shot websites are no longer enjoying the heyday they once had, they do still exist, making money in other ways, including Google ads for bail bonds and related services. And as long as mug shot websites are still running, there is the potential for your arrest photo to show up online, damaging your reputation.

But while the threat still exists, in some ways it has lessened. Arrest photos no longer rank high enough to block out all positive search results, and now, mug shot websites are changing up their game. On websites like mug, booked inmates can’t pay to have their photo removed, but they can wait. The website, and many others like it, now refreshes data and hosts mug shot photos for a maximum of 90 days.

That’s good news for people with prior arrests they’d like to leave behind in a hurry, but be careful: nothing is ever really gone online. Potential employers, creditors, and other interested parties may still dig up your arrest record and mug shot photo by using caching or searching the Internet Archive. That is, of course, assuming they are savvy enough to find them.

What You Can Do if Your Mug Shot is Online

If you’ve found your mug shot online and are struggling to remove it, don’t lose hope. You have options, and the law may be on your side to help. You can try to remove your mug shot online by following these methods:

  • Check the website’s policy. Some websites have what they call a “courtesy removal service.” If you can prove that you were exonerated or never charged, your photo may be removed. Even if the arrest stuck, if you can demonstrate that you’ve turned your life around, the websites may be convinced to take down your photo. Communication with the websites is a good first step, but keep in mind that they may not be eager to help.
  • Find out if you’re protected by law. Your state may have a law that requires mug shot websites to remove photos upon request. Typically, they must be taken down within 30 days of being contacted with the request, or they will be in violation of the law. Georgia and Oregon are two states that currently have these laws, and we expect to see more states join their ranks shortly.
  • Push for a larger crackdown on mug shot websites. If your state doesn’t have a mug shot removal law, ask for one. Contact your state lawmakers and encourage them to create a law that will make it easier for you to manage your online reputation.
  • Consult an attorney. Class action and individual lawsuits are pending against mug shot websites. You may be able to join, or create your own case to remove the photo and possibly win damages.

Ultimately, the outlook is positive for individuals struggling with reputation issues from a prior arrest. Though there are some websites that are still publishing photos and somehow, charging for removal, their popularity has clearly taken a nosedive. And even though they still exist, individuals with prior arrests have more options than simply paying for removal — and the law may be able to help. If you’re featured on a mug shot website, seek out every option possible to get your photo and record removed. Take action, and defend your online reputation.