Online Reputation Scrubbing Isn’t Getting Any Easier

I'm 1980's David Bowie, Brett...

I'm 1980's David Bowie, Brett...

Confession: we were recently Googling someone we knew in high school after one of those random “I wonder what he’s been doing for the past ten years?” moments. The answer to our question was “breaking the law all over the place”, and it came in the form of ten different images of our old acquaintance in various stages of arrest.

We felt bad for him and we still do, but this little discovery gave us our first look into the skeezy world of mugshot websites, a weird little niche business that just keeps growing like a defiant weed (according to The New York Times).

These sites look like producers of clickbait spam that comes in approximately three varieties: “faces of meth”, “sexy mugshots” and “celebrities at their drunkest”. Here’s how they make money: they charge the average citizens depicted in these mug shots to remove them. And the pay scale is “flexible.”

Grossed out yet?

Since there’s no standard price for the removal of mugshots (which happen to be public property), the sites essentially force their victims to pay as much as the market dictates to prevent these pics from showing up every time someone searches for their name. Shots removed from one site will quickly pop up on another, requiring another, higher payoff. And it’s very difficult to clean the entire slate:

“Removal services aren’t cheap — charges $899 for its “multiple mug shot package” — and owners of large reputation-management companies, which work with people trying to burnish their online image, contend that they are a waste of money.”

The runners of these sites claim they’re providing a public service by enabling the average Joe to quickly find everything there is to know about his new boss/ babysitter/ Little League coach while advocates for press freedom say that these mugshot sites are a sad side effect of a necessary service. If mugshots weren’t available to the public then all sorts of politicians, influential executives and others would be able to get their digital records scrubbed without a second thought.

That’s a good point, but many ordinary people who weren’t even convicted of the crimes for which they were arrested are having their reputations soiled by the practice.

Google is tweaking its algorithm to prevent these sites from popping up so frequently, and financial companies like PayPal and American Express are trying to make it harder for them to earn money from their schemes.

But can we really kill them, or will they just pop up somewhere else in a slightly different form?