I live in fear that my beloved computer will break down and need service at the local tech shop. A breakdown like this would put me out of work for a day or two, of course, but it might also give snoopy technicians access to my Internet browsing history, meaning they'd see links to sites regarding revenge porn, mugshots, inmate searches and hate blogs. I can just imagine the stares I'd get when the work was through. But it's something I signed up for, as working in the reputation management industry means dealing with unsavory sites like this on a regular basis, keeping track of what's new and thinking of ways to keep people from getting hurt.
PayPal Goes After Mugshot Sites
Recently, as my colleagues at InternetReputation.com were delving into a particular mugshot site for a client, they noticed that something important was missing. Normally, when they'd click on a specific photo on these sites, they'd see a "Remove Record" button, along with a list of icons that detailed the payments the site would take. On that day, the PayPal button was missing. In subsequent days, I've seen it disappear from other mugshot sites, too. Now, at least five mugshot sites no longer accept PayPal payments.
This might seem like a detail that's only interesting to geeks who work in reputation management, along with the mugshot site administrators they fight against. But in reality, this change might signal something much more interesting, and it could have an impact on those people targeted by mugshot websites in the future.
The Impact of PayPal
A little change in a PayPal policy might be more meaningful simply because of the big influence this payment site has on the online economy. According to Statistics Brain, over $315.3 million in payments passes through PayPal each day, and while many of these transactions come about through eBay auctions, many others might have their roots in the burgeoning freelance market. Some might even involve parents paying a child's expenses. It's just a hip way to pay. While many major sites don't take PayPal (including Amazon.com, which is a little baffling to me), most reputable sites do.
In fact, it's a bit of a badge of honor, since PayPal closely monitors its vendors and ensures that they meet a specific standard of quality. Mugshot sites that don't accept PayPal might find it hard to get cash, of course, but they might also miss out on a little cache, seeming somewhat depleted in the eyes of people who follow the payment industry closely.
Important Disclaimers Regarding Mugshot Sites
It's worth mentioning that we can neither confirm nor deny that these mugshot sites aren't using PayPal because of:
- Poor business practices
- Consumer complaints
- Law enforcement interventions
- Personal preference
Tracking down a talking person at a site like this is a bit like peeling an onion, as there are layers and layers to get through, and the whole process tends to end in tears. In fact, when a reporter for the Associated Press attempted to determine who owned a specific mugshot site, he was taken to an address in the United States that belonged to a different corporation. When he tried to find out who handled deletion for this site, he was led to two companies in South America.
These layers can keep the administrators safe from angry hordes with flames and pitchforks, but it makes clear reporting a little difficult. But, if mugshot websites are no longer accepting PayPal payments from clients who would like to delete their images, and that change isn't due to personal preference, we have a couple good theories about what might be going on.
Parsing the Evidence
In a quick perusal of the PayPal Acceptable Use Policy, I couldn't find any language that would specifically prohibit the work done by a mugshot website. The industry isn't mentioned by name, and the act of publishing a mugshot is similarly absent from the document. But I can see a few instances where the mugshot sites might possibly be noncompliant. For example, PayPal prohibits transactions that:
- Violate the law. If a mugshot of a person younger than 18 is shared on a mugshot site (yes, it happens), and that state had laws regarding anonymity of minors, asking for a fee might be considered illegal.
- Allow financial profit due to a crime. Asking for a fee when a crime has taken place might not profit the person who was arrested, but it might still be prohibited via PayPal's rules.
- Are reasonably considered obscene. The comments that run underneath some of these mugshots aren't grandmother friendly, and some might consider them obscene.
- Encourage others, or somehow train them, to do something illegal. Details of an arrest might seem like a deterrent, but some might use the information to prevent their own arrests, especially if they can track the areas in which most arrests take place.
Most strikingly, PayPal prohibits, "… sales of products or services identified by government agencies to have a high likelihood of being fraudulent." Once again, the Feds get the nod here, as their little web page seems to suggest that a mugshot site's work is less than benign.
Not a Permanent Solution to Internet Mugshots
While I applaud anything that makes the life of a mugshot administrator a little more difficult, I also think it's safe to say that this won't be the death knell for these sites. After all, the sites can still take plastic payments, and a few of the sites I checked this morning were still accepting Visa, Mastercard, Discover and even American Express payments for people who want their photos taken off the web. Also, our research indicates that the removal of PayPal might bring about even more serious problems. Since PayPal isn't an option for some sites, they've removed any reference to a solution from their web pages.
Now, when I click on a record on Arrests.org, for example, I can see no button that tells me how to get my photo removed. If I was arrested, and I saw my own photo in a late-night browsing session, I might walk away from this website thinking that no one could help me, and that nothing could be done to make my photo disappear. Is that really progress? I'm not sure.
Thankfully, people who are arrested do have other options.
For instance, they can get my colleagues at InternetReputation.com to remove the mugshot. We need to ensure that more people find out about this option, and that they use it when they're arrested. And rest assured that we'll keep you informed of any new developments on the mugshot removal payment front. Something tells me this story is just beginning.