A lawyer who filed a suit against the alleged operator of a group of mug shot websites says he’s guilty of online extortion. The sites demand money from the people whose information and mug shots appear on them in order for them to be removed. They claim to provide a service by allowing people to look up backgrounds on others to find out if they’ve been convicted of a crime.

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But what’s most disturbing about these sites is that some of the people being targeted by them are innocent of any crime—unless being a relative of someone who committed a crime is illegal. And then there’s the fact that theoretically, people who are truly dangerous can pay to have their information removed, thus calling into question whether mug shot websites really do provide any service at all.

Details on the mug shot website case

Attorney Janice Bellucci filed the civil suit earlier this year on behalf of 10 plaintiffs whose information appeared on the sites allegedly run by Charles Roderick. He demands about $500 per person to have their information removed from his sites. She alleges racketeering and extortion in her case. Bellucci estimates that he can earn hundreds of millions of dollars by targeting not only convicted criminals, but their family members as well.

The sites named in her lawsuit have several pages devoted to defending themselves against lawsuits like the one filed by Bellucci on behalf of her clients and others, as well as comments made in the media. The operators of the sites deny all of the allegations.

Google tries to demote mug shot websites

Details on Bellucci’s case were uncovered after we published a story about Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG)’s attempt to battle these mug shot websites. The search giant rolled out an algorithm update recently to demote such sites to the second page of results. But at this point, it appears as if there’s little that can be done to truly get at the root of this problem.

I spent time speaking with Bellucci, reading court documents and reviewing the sites being targeted by her suit. If you want to view this story in depth, it’s available here.

What do you think of mug shot websites? Do they provide a service, or are they nothing but a racket? Is Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG) right to demote them?