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?"