Two alleged owners of Mugshots.com—Sahar Sarid and Thomas Keesee—have been arrested in south Florida on a recently issued California warrant. The notorious website publishes mugshots and then demands payment for their removal.
On Wednesday, the attorney general of California brought criminal charges against not only Saried and Keesee, but also Kishore Vidya Bhavnanie and David Usdan. The quartet has been charged with extortion, money laundering, and identity theft.
Bhavnanie was arraigned by a Pennsylvania state judge also on Wednesday—his bail was reportedly set at $1.86 million. According to Tania Mercado, a spokeswoman for the California Attorney General's office, Usdan is also in custody.
"This pay-for-removal scheme attempts to profit off of someone else's humiliation," said Attorney General Becerra in a statement. "Those who can't afford to pay into this scheme to have their information removed pay the price when they look for a job, housing, or try to build relationships with others. This is exploitation, plain and simple."
In the same statement, Becerra's office said that these defendants "extracted more than $64,000 in removal fees from approximately 175 individuals with billing addresses in California. Nationally, the defendants took more than $2 million in removal fees from approximately 5,703 individuals for the same period."
Mugshots.com did not respond to Ars' request for comment.
The 29-page affidavit provides a lengthy explanation of what prosecutors call a "business permeated with fraud."
The court filing provides numerous harrowing accounts of the lengths that people have gone to to try to get their embarrassing arrest pictures removed.
In one example, Jesse T. (his last name has been withheld in the official affidavit) of Sonoma County, California, was arrested and booked into the county jail on September 2, 2013. He was held for 12 days before being released and not charged with a crime.
Nearly a year later, Jesse found his booking photo on Mugshots.com, a notorious site that has built up an entire business model around posting photos of anyone who has been arrested, then charging them hundreds of dollars to have the images removed.
Jesse told law enforcement that, after his arrest, he had applied for 100 jobs in construction, electrical, and manufacturing but got no response.
Finally, Jesse decided to call Mugshots.com's sister site: unpublisharrest.com.
He dialed the 800 number, where "a man told him he needed to pay the $399."
Jesse told this unidentified man that this practice was illegal—the man laughed at him and hung up. Jesse persisted, called again, and told him that he had proof that he had been cleared of all charges. The man hung up again.
Finally, on July 23, 2016, Jesse called the number three times but only got a recorded message. Finally, at 8:08am, his own phone rang with an unlisted number. Jesse started recording the call.
"Hello?" Jesse said.
"—this third time tell you fucking bitch, we never answer your calls again you've been permanently published, faggot bitch," the man said.
"Hey, I'd like my stuff removed."
Then the call abruptly ended.
In a statement published to his own website, Sahar Sarid—who claims to live in Thailand—wrote that his "involvement with Mugshots.com and related entities ended in December 2013."
He said that his prior role with the company was "limited" as an "unpaid consultant."
"Mugshots.com makes public arrest records easier to find," Sarid continued. "I support these ideas and ideals."
Despite his claim, the redacted affiant noted that, as recently as 2016, Sarid did not dispute the fact that he is the owner of Mugshots.com.
Last year, the site's owners faced a civil lawsuit brought in federal court in Illinois.
As of this writing, Mugshots.com continues to operate.