Operators of Mugshots.com accused of ID theft, money laundering, extortion
San Rafael, CA – A computer crimes task force that includes members of the Marin County District Attorney’s Office staff spearheaded an investigation that led to the State of California filing felony charges in a case of alleged internet extortion.
On May 15, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced charges of extortion, money laundering, and identity theft against four defendants allegedly behind the exploitative website Mugshots.com. The website mines data from police and sheriffs’ department websites to collect individuals’ names, booking photos and charges, then republishes the information online without the individuals’ knowledge or consent.
Marin County District Attorney Ed Berberian said the investigation against the Mugshots.com defendants was led by the Northern California Computer Crimes Task Force, a grant-funded group for which he served as project director until recently.
Once subjects request that their booking photos be removed from Mugshots.com, they are routed to a secondary website called Unpublisharrest.com and charged a “de-publishing” fee to have the content removed. Mugshots.com does not remove criminal record information until a subject pays the fee. That is the case even if the subject had charges dismissed or had been arrested because of mistaken identity or law enforcement error. Subjects who cannot pay the fee subsequently may be denied housing, employment, or other opportunities because their booking photo is readily available on the internet.
“This pay-for-removal scheme attempts to profit off of someone else’s humiliation,” 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.”
The defendants named in the complaint were Sahar Sarid, Kishore Vidya Bhavnanie, Thomas Keesee, and David Usdan, the alleged owners and operators of Mugshots.com. Over a three-year period, the 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.
Berberian credited former operational commander Carl Chapman, current operational commander John George, and Inspector Sara Delaney for their role in the task force’s success during the Mugshots.com investigation.
Berberian said Marin County has consistently stepped forwarded to assure local residents are protected from cybercrime. The State of California circulated grant opportunities statewide in the mid-1990s and Marin was one of only five California law enforcement entities that successfully competed and was awarded a regional high-tech computer crimes task force grant.
“In the 1990s it was clear to me the world was changing and the internet was ripe for exploitation and victimization,” Berberian said. “There is not a crime type today that does not have some connection to the computer age, particularly with the development of the smartphone phenomenon. Forensic analysis at some level is present in almost all our cases – from murders to DUIs. Our task force provides our regional members with a resource for this type of analysis and potential courtroom testimony. There is no shortage of work.”
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