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Mug-Shot Industry Will Dig Up Your Past Charge You,Bury It Again

August 2, 2011

Ex-con Rob Wiggen gets hate mail daily for running a website that hosts 4 million mug shots.

Philip Cabibi, a 31-year-old applications administrator in Utah, sat at his computer one recent Sunday evening and performed one of the compulsive rituals of the Internet Age: the ego search. He typed his name into Google to take a quick survey of how the internet sees him, like a glance in the mirror.

There were two LinkedIn hits, three White Pages listings, a post he made last year to a Meetup forum for Italian-Americans in the Salt Lake City area. Then, coming in 10th place — barely crawling onto the first page of search results — was a disturbing item.

“Philip Cabibi Mugshot,” read the title. The description was “Mug shot for Philip Cabibi booked into the Pinellas County jail.”

When he clicked through, Cabibi was greeted with his mug shot and booking information from his 2007 drunk-driving arrest in Florida. It’s an incident in Cabibi’s life that he isn’t proud of, and one that he didn’t expect to find prominently listed in his search results four years later, for all the world to see.

The website was florida.arrests.org, a privately run enterprise that siphons booking photos out of county-sheriff databases throughout the Sunshine State, and posts them where Google’s web crawlers can see them for the first time. Desperate to get off the site, Cabibi quickly found an apparent ally: RemoveSlander.com. “You are not a criminal,” the website said reassuringly. “End this humiliating ordeal … Bail out of Google. We can delete the mug-shot photo.”

Cabibi paid RemoveSlander $399 by credit card, and within a day, the site had come through. His mug shot was gone from florida.arrests.org, and his Google results were clean.

“The RemoveSlander site was perfect. It seemed like it was just tailored to the mug-shot site,” Cabibi said in a recent telephone interview from Orem, Utah. “I searched ‘how to remove mug shots from florida.arrests.org,’ and the site was the first result. And I paid.”
‘Of course I’m not going to have my mug on my site.’

With that, Cabibi passed through one of the latest niche industries on the web: the mug-shot racket. Exploiting Florida’s liberal public-records laws and Google’s search algorithms, a handful of entrepreneurs are making real money by publicly shaming people who’ve run afoul of Florida law. Florida.arrests.org, the biggest player, now hosts more than 4 million mugs.

On the other side of the equation are firms like RemoveSlander, RemoveArrest.com and others that sometimes charge hundreds of dollars to get a mugshot removed. On the surface, the mug-shot sites and the reputation firms are mortal enemies. But behind the scenes, they have a symbiotic relationship that wrings cash out of the people exposed.

Florida.arrests.org is the brainchild of a computer-savvy Florida ex-con named Rob Wiggen. The 32-year-old served three years in federal prison for participating in a small-time credit-card-skimming operation (.pdf) out of a Mexican restaurant in Tallahassee.

When he got out of jail in 2007, he was looking for more legitimate opportunities. Last year he seized on the idea of repurposing the booking photos that Florida police departments are obliged to make public under the state’s sunshine laws.

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