Felley, who lives in Nehalem, wrote the Oregon attorney general this spring to complain about a website, pdxmugshots.com, that featured a mug shot of his 21-year-old son. Felley had found out the site was demanding $29 to remove his son’s booking photo. “Doesn’t seem fair that we should have to continue paying,” he wrote.
Felley today says he never paid it, nor did his son, who he says has a mental disability. Court records show his son also has misdemeanor theft and menacing convictions.
“I’d say they’re predatory in the way they operate,” Felley says of the website, pdxmugshots.com. “It preys on troubled people.”
The site posts thousands of booking photos from Portland, Salem, Eugene, Corvallis and other Oregon cities and now charges the accused $39 to have the photos removed and their names attached to the pictures scrubbed from Google searches.
The company operates in other states, including Idaho and Tennessee. Other companies’ mug-shot sites have popped up in such places as Florida and Utah.
Mug shots as entertainment has been flourishing. Anyone who has visited a Plaid Pantry lately might have seen copies of Busted, a $1 tabloid that reprints local booking photos. Other businesses, such as removearrest.com, promise to purge embarrassing information about you from the Web.
But pdxmugshots.com is one of the few that both showcase the photos and offer to remove them for a fee.
Fairly simple mechanics power pdxmugshots: An algorithm scrapes the photos from law enforcement websites, including the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail. “It’s definitely not something the sheriff’s office would condone,” spokesman Lt. Steve Alexander says.
Even advocates of open government say such sites are in effect extorting people hoping to avoid further embarrassment. “It seems to me that any effort to profit from someone else’s personal embarrassment is fundamentally wrong,” says Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy of the Federation of American Scientists, a nonprofit group that advocates for increased transparency. “It is disrespectful. It is exploitative. It is unethical.”
One of the site’s operators, who identifies himself as Alfonso Petal, says he’s providing a public service.
“Look, we are not embarrassing anybody,” Petal says. “We are giving public information out so people can see it in an easy way, so they can see whether their neighbor or their friend has been arrested.”
His partner, who identifies himself only as “Barry,” gave a Dec. 8, 2010, interview on KBOO. He told the radio station that the website didn’t start charging until he and his business partner were inundated with requests from people whose mug shots appeared on the site to take them down. “I realized its revenue potential,” he said.
He also attempted to explain the appeal of the site: “That whole kind of twisted psychology where people like to see their friends and neighbors in kind of a vulnerable position...people can do it privately. You don’t have to feel too bad about it.”
Petal and his partner have operated in the shadows to avoid being identified. WW tracked the address of the site’s parent company, KA Marketing, to
Anand “Lucky” Jesrani, a Redding, Calif., attorney who filed the corporation's original paperwork. Jesrani says he is only KA Marketing's registered agent and has no connection with the company or the site. He contacted the owners on WW's behalf, and Petal called.
Petal claims the group doesn’t make much money from the site. “I think me and Barry probably made $50 each after everything was done last month,” he says. But crunching numbers he provided suggests the group made about $1,500 a month in profit from mug shot removal alone. Even advertisers on the site have had some misgivings.
“My initial thought
was that it’s kind of nefarious,” says Matt Stickler, whose site,
Arrestly.com, alerts employers or other subscribers if people on a watch
list get arrested. “But after talking to them about what they are
actually doing, it’s going to be that or it’s going to be something
else. People are going to monetize emotion, maybe humiliation.”