Alleged Co-Owners of Mugshots.com Charged With Extortion

(CN) – Two men alleged to be the co-owners of Mugshots.com had their own booking photos taken on Wednesday after South Florida police arrested them following a warrant issued by California’s attorney general.

Sahar Sarid, 44, and Thomas Keesee, 60, face criminal charges for extortion, money laundering and identity theft in connection with Mugshots.com, which publishes arrest records gleaned from law enforcement websites. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra accuses the men of demanding money if an individual wants the records removed from the site.

Sarid has denied any ownership interest in the site.

Two other men, Pennsylvania resident Kishore Vidya Bhavnanie and David Usdan of Connecticut, were also charged. A Los Angeles judge set bond at $1.8 million for each individual. California plans to extradite all four men.

“This pay-for-removal scheme attempts to profit off of someone else’s humiliation,” Attorney General Becerra said 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.”

A message sent to the website was not returned.

Mugshots.com calls itself a “Google for mugshots,” according to the site. Visitors can search through more than 30 million records gathered from state and local law enforcement websites and court records.

According to the affidavit prepared by a California district attorney, Mugshots.com did not remove criminal record information upon request, even if the charges were dismissed or the individual was falsely arrested. The website did, however, refer requests to a sister site — Unpublisharrest.com. For a fee, that website offers to remove the information from Mugshots.com.

California passed a law in 2014 prohibiting soliciting or accepting a payment to remove a booking photo.

Prosecutors say Sarid and Keesee owned the sites, Bhavnanie was responsible for removing the booking photos and Usdan answered phone calls and processed orders.

The affidavit chronicles interviews with several California residents who could not find jobs or lost friendships due to the postings on Mugshots.com. When the residents called unpublisharrest.com to remove the record, they were told to pay at least $399, and sometimes more, even if the record was inaccurate or charges dismissed.

The affidavit alleges the owners made more than $2 million over a three-year period and stashed the profits overseas.

Prosecutors also charged the men with identity theft for collecting individuals’ personal information for an unlawful purpose.

The affidavit claims the owners of Mugshots.com attempted to shield their identity by listing a business address in the West Indies, registering the domain name in Belize and using a website hosting company from Australia. However, a Sacramento County judge granted prosecutors search warrants that uncovered the men’s e-mail and financial accounts, according to the document.

The arrests are an ironic twist to ongoing legal battles over the website.

Last year, a federal judge approved class status for a group of arrestees claiming Mugshots.com used their booking photos for commercial purposes without consent. In addition to “removal fees,” the lawsuit alleges the site earns revenue through paid advertising.

In the complaint, Illinois resident Peter Gabiola claims a representative of the site offered to remove his photo for $2,000 and $15,000 for his entire profile. A Florida man listed in the complaint said a representative proposed changing his profile to show a false arrest for $399.

The site faces several lawsuits in other states. Last August, a Florida chiropractor became the first to file a lawsuit using a new state law prohibiting mugshot websites from charging fees to remove photos.

Seventeen other states have similar laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.

As of Friday, Mugshots.com continued to post new records, though the link to Unpublisharrest.com was inactive.

In a May 15 post on a personal website attributed to Sarid the self-described web developer claims he was a consultant to the company and left in December 2013.

“I never got paid nor wanted to be paid by anyone,” he wrote.

He still defended the website.

“Mugshots.com makes public arrest records easier to find,” he wrote. “I support these ideas and ideals.”

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