4 operators of mugshots.com charged with criminal extortion

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced today that prosecutors in his office filed criminal extortion, money laundering and identity theft charges against four operators of a pay-for-removal mugshot website.

The website, Mugshots.com, obtains names, booking photos and criminal charges from police and sheriffs' department websites, republishes the information online and allegedly charges a fee for removal.

The information is kept online unless the removal fee has been paid, even if the charges have been dismissed or the person was arrested because of mistaken identity or police error, Becerra said.

People who can't pay the fee may be denied housing, jobs or other opportunities because their booking photo is available on the Internet.

"This pay-for-removal scheme attempts to profit off of someone else's humiliation. This is exploitation, plain and simple," Becerra said in a statement.

Removal fees are paid through a related website called Unpublisharrest.com.

The four defendants are Sahar Sarid, Kishore Vidya Bhavnanie, Thomas Keesee, and David Usdan.

Becerra said they live in other states and that prosecutors are working with authorities in Florida, Connecticut and Pennsylvania to seek their extradition to California.

According to filings in a civil case pending against Sarid, Keesee and the two companies in federal court in Chicago, Sarid and Keesee both live in Florida and Sarid is the owner of the two websites.

An affidavit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court with arrest warrants for the four men alleges that between January 2014 and January 2017, Mugshots.com extorted $64,637 from 175 Californians for 
deletion of their booking photos and information.

It alleges that nationally, Mugshots.com took $2,422,924 from 5,703 people in the same period.

The affidavit was filed by an inspector from the Marin County District Attorney's Office whose name was blacked out on a copy made available by Becerra's office.

The document alleges that victims interviewed by the inspector were asked to pay removal fees ranging from $399 to $500.

In one example, the inspector said a Sonoma County resident told her he was arrested and booked into county jail in 2013 but was never charged with a crime and his arrest was considered a detention only.

The man said he believed the online information prevented him from getting work and caused a girlfriend to suddenly break off a two-year relationship that had been going well.

The Sonoma County man said he was told in 2016 he would have to pay $399 to remove the information and was laughed at when he told a man at the telephone number given on the website that the request was illegal. 

In a second phone call, the man hung up when the victim said he had proof he was cleared of the charges, and in a recorded third call the man swore at him and said, "We'll never answer your calls again, you've been permanently published," according to the affidavit. 

Becerra said the investigation was carried out by the Northern California Computer Crimes Task Force, a consortium of local, state and federal enforcement agencies with headquarters in Napa.