Lawmakers, Credit Card Companies Take Aim at Mug Shot Websites
(NEW YORK) -- For people who find their faces splashed across mug shot websites, even if they were later found innocent of the crimes, it can haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Now, lawmakers and even credit card companies are stepping in to help protect people from further humiliation.
Owners of mug shot websites will post the photos released by police departments with the person's name and information. Many then make money by charging people, sometimes hundreds of dollars, to have a mug shot removed. Dozens of these sites exist and can rack up clicks -- BustedMugshots.com alone boasts nearly three million viewers per month.
Michael Needham said the mugshot from his DUI arrest in Georgia ended up on one of these websites and now pops up with every Internet search of his name.
"Stuff follows you forever and it feels like I'm a little fish in a big pond," he said. "It's hard to fight these mug shot companies. It's hard, I don't even know who to turn to, to try to make these things go away."
The former ROTC cadet now runs a moving business and hires college students, but fears he will never escape his past.
"It's ridiculous to have one small chapter of your life affect a big portion of your life," he said.
What these websites are doing is considered legal. They stand behind "sunshine" laws that allow them to legally download booking photos and other open records from police websites, sometimes the very second those files are released. In some cases, the websites won't remove the mug shots even if the person was cleared of all charges.
And it can be hard to track down the site owners to ask to have the mug shot taken down. Often the contact information listed on these websites leads to dead ends.
Sophia Andrade said she felt violated by mug shot websites that legally published the booking photos from what she said was a false arrest from a domestic dispute. She said she was innocent, and the charge was later cleared from her record, but her mugshot remains online.
"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."
When Andrade asked one of the mug shot websites to keep her photos private, she said they would do it if she paid them $399. She refused and while she was negotiating with one website, her mug shot showed up on others.
"Just to have that online, it's just a constant reminder of my nightmare," Andrade 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? What am I paying for?"
When Nightline first told this story earlier this year, Georgia lawmaker Roger Bruce was pushing a bill that would make it a crime for a website to charge someone in Georgia to remove a mug shot photo. After ABC's report, nearly every state lawmaker supported his bill and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed it into law. Georgia joins a handful of states now trying to protect residents who have booking photos.
"Well, you can file a lawsuit now," Bruce said. "Basically what happens now is if your mug shot is out there and you call them, they have 30 days to remove it. If they don't remove it now they are in violation of the law."
Credit card companies are now also pitching in by refusing to process transactions for mug shot website operators. American Express said in a statement to Nightline that it "maintains the right to terminate any relationship that is harmful to our brand. When the sites were brought to our attention, we conducted a detailed review and canceled as appropriate."
PayPal said it now has a new policy, saying there will be an "account suspension of any mug shot site that requires payment for removal."
Even search engine giant Google made headlines when it released a new search algorithm targeting the mug shot website industry. Now mug shot websites are pushed far down the list of average search results.
The owners of BustedMugshots.com are now facing a lawsuit from more than 250,000 people in Ohio accusing the company of "exploiting" their photos for "commercial gain." In an email to Nightline, company CEO Kyle Prall said he is providing a public service, saying, "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."
Prall told Nightline in March that his company removes photos for free when the person shows they have been exonerated, but now BustedMugshots.com no longer accepts payment for any photo removal.
"We are in the process of altering our arrest record removal policy and are unable to remove this record at this time. Effective immediately, we will no longer be accepting payment for any record removal," Prall said in an email.
Other mug shot website owners did not return Nightline's request for comment.
Bruce said the next step is to force the websites to display real contact information so people can call to get their photos removed.
"I'm convinced that they know what they are doing is wrong and their time is running out," he said, adding that he hoped they would "all be gone" in a few years.
Sophia Andrade has become the face and emotional fire in the fight against the mug shot website industry. She was in Georgia when the governor signed the new law, and she has started a nonprofit group to help other families fighting the websites.
"You are defending yourself as long as the picture is out there," she said.
Michael Needham said getting his life back on track would be a lot easier if his mug shot wasn't chasing him online.
"People make mistakes," he said. "Those mistakes shouldn't hold a person back for the rest of their life."
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio