March 7, 2013— -- There is something about seeing someone's mug shot -- what could be their most unfortunate photo ever -- that is attracting tons of people on the Internet, and a few are cashing in on the opportunity.
A new industry of mug shot websites, such as WhosArrested.com and AltantaMugshots.org, has emerged in the past two years, with more than 60 new sites up and running.
Here's how it works. Under the blessings of open records laws, the websites legally download the latest mug shots from police department websites, post the faces of the alleged lawbreakers online and then often charge the accused a fee -- sometimes hundreds of dollars -- to take the photos down.
"We all know it's wrong," said Wanda Dallas, labor relations manager at the Fulton County Sheriff's Office in Atlanta. "Fundamentally, we all know it's wrong but in a country that just gives people the access to information, and in an age where information is available quickly, how do you stop this?"
But once the mug shot photo ends up online on one site, it can often start appearing on others, making the photos difficult to remove from the Internet entirely.
"Once something gets on the Internet, that booking photo, that mug shot photo, is going to haunt you for the rest of your life," said Peter Aiken, a criminal defense attorney in Fort Myers, Fla.
Andy McMahon, a computer technician in Atlanta, said he paid $75 to take down an old booking photo from a DUI. He said he has not had a drink in five years and now he is a family man, with a young daughter and a baby on the way. He wonders if his punishment will ever end.
"It wasn't a lot but it wasn't a little," McMahon said. "After they took it down, it just started popping up everywhere. It's kind of like Whack-a-Mole, you know, you hit one down and it pops up in other places."
Sophia Andrade, a corporate account manager, said her mug shot ended up on one of these websites but said she is innocent. She has fought to have the photo removed for more than a year.
"It's like, you can't move on with your life," she said. "I mean everybody goes to Google now to see who you are. I'm not a criminal. I'm not charged with anything."
Andrade said she feels like she has been violated by the online mug shot industry, which legally published her booking photos from what she said was a false arrest after police were called to her home yet again. That arrest was later cleared from her record.
"Just to have that online, it's just a constant reminder of my nightmare," Andrade said.
When she said she asked one of the mug shot websites to keep her photo private, she said they agreed but only if she paid $399, which she refused. But Andrade said while she was negotiating with one site, her mug shot kept showing up on others.
"All they want is money to take the pictures down," she said. "It's not just that I take my photograph down on this site. It comes down on this site and it pops up somewhere else, over and over again, so when does it stop?"
"Nightline" went looking for a spokesperson from the mug shot website industry, but found that contact information on the sites often led to nowhere, making the owners quite difficult to track down.
One man in Louisiana, who asked to be called "TJ," agreed to talk on the condition of us not using his real name.
"Think of how many people have been arrested, now put a small service fee on that amount of people, and you can see why the industry has sort of taken off," he said. "We're not here to say whether you are guilty or innocent. We're just here to report the recent arrest."
"TJ" said he is a businessman who works in the mugshot industry. He describes himself as a middle man, hired by thousands of desperate Americans each year, hoping he can negotiate with the mugshot websites on their behalf, to have their booking photos removed. On his website, RemoveSlander.com, he charges up to $1,300 for his services and he swears that he is not in bed with the owners of these sites.
"I don't consider it dirty what I do," he said. "What I do is help people... It's the United States of America, it's free enterprise. Here is the slimy underbelly."
One of the largest and most popular sites, BustedMugshots.com, is facing a lawsuit from more than 250,000 people in Ohio who have accused the company of "exploiting" their mug shots "for commercial gain." In an email to "Nightline" company CEO Kyle Prall said he was providing a public service, adding, "We feel that public's right to know about local arrests and crime outweighs this concern, which is one of the main reasons the public records laws have determined these records must be disclosed to the public."
"We gladly and quickly remove photos for those who demonstrate that they have been exonerated or found not guilty of the charges … and the record is removed at no charge," the email said.
Sophia Andrade said that was not her experience dealing with many mug shot websites. She said she explained over and over again how she was the victim and how the photos were preventing her "from obtaining employment." She even provided the sites' court documents showing that prosecutors dismissed the case. But her picture remains published to this day.
"Nightline" found several sites, such as TampaCriminals.com, that explained how they charge to remove booking photos, even if the person in the photo was cleared.
"TJ" said the real problem is the law, saying the industry would go away if authorities stopped treating mug shots like trophies. He showed "Nightline" county and city jail records online where booking photos were made publicly available within hours of arrests.
"Here's the thing, the police can stop this overnight and that's the part no one is talking about," he said. "Why are we posting the mug shot of someone who simply missed traffic court? Why is there a need, Mr. Sheriff, to post their photos?"
Georgia State Rep. Roger Bruce is one man trying to shut down the mug shot industry, pushing for a law that would make it a crime to publish a booking photo and then charge a fee to have it taken down -- but only in Georgia. That law is currently moving through the Georgia legislature.
"What we're trying to do is first of all ... remove the incentive for putting it out there," Bruce said. "So we don't want them able to charge a fee to remove these pictures and the thought is, If they can't charge a fee, why put it out there."
He said sheriff departments across the country should be able to label their images with watermarks and police their use. He added that victims like Andrade should be able to sue when police say those booking photos have been misused.
Today, Andrade said she has found work and stepped away from the fight, deciding that she will live with the pictures and explain her story one person at a time.
"It just destroys your life," she said. "As long as the picture is out there, you are defending yourself."