Mugged: A video documentary that lets audiences interact with data


Heard of Mugshots.com? It’s one of many websites that scrape public arrest records, post mugshots online, and then charge large sums of money to take them down – even if you are innocent. For more than a year, Fusion’s The Naked Truth investigative team, looked into the murky online world surrounding these websites. To visualize their discoveries, the team created an interactive documentary that allows audiences to delve into the convoluted paper trail themselves. By engaging directly with the investigation’s data, audiences are able to discover for themselves just how shady the industry really is.

To find out more about the project, we spoke to Natasha Del Toro (@ndeltoro), the project’s producer and reporter, and Rachel Schallom (@rschallom), the project’s interactive designer.

DDJ: The investigation involved a lot of digging into Mugshots.com and Unpublisharrest.com, looking at documents like domain names and court documents, and came up against a lot of dead ends. How was the data collection process and investigation organized, and why did this case present so many unique challenges?

Natasha: This case presented many unique challenges because the people behind Mugshots.com and Unpublisharrests,com, the removal service, go to extreme lengths to hide and mislead people about their identity and location using fake owners’ names, shell companies, offshore companies and anonymous website registration services. We started our investigation by looking for information on the websites themselves. They claim to be separate companies, but we wanted to see if and how they were connected. However, they don’t list names or address on the websites. The only information they post is that Mugshots.com is owned and operated by an entity in Nevis, West Indies, which turned out to be a mail drop. They also post a toll free phone number for mugshot removal, but the people who answer the phones only accept payments and threaten anyone who asks for other details about the company. So we decided to find out more about the company by looking into public business registration documents and by looking at WHOIS, a database which stores domain names, IP addresses and the names and addresses of website registrars. We tried to track the owners via their online website registration using WHOIS and found the websites were both registered in Belize and use frequently changing IP addresses. They also use a private service that conceals identity of the registrar.

We had more luck looking through public documents. We found the name of a guy named Marc Epstein who claimed to be the lawyer of the site and that of his son, Ari Epstein, on several business registration documents in Florida with similar names, like Unpublish LLC, and Unpublisharrest LLC. Marc Epstein also registered Mugshots.com LLC in Delaware but closed it a year later. We also found another entity with a similar name in Wyoming that was registered by a company called Hammermill and Masterson, which we traced to a virtual office in Tampa, Florida to a man named Thomas Keesee. Using Corporation Wiki, a database which links people and companies, I found that Thomas Keesee had formerly been a business partner of Sahar Sarid, who, according to news articles, allegely owned and sold Mugshots.com in 2011. We also found that Ari Epstein had other businesses with odd names, like USAPS, registered to that same Tampa office and addresses in Wyoming. While we couldn’t determine the function of some of those companies, we started connecting dots and seeing patterns with names and addresses. We found it interesting they chose to register in Wyoming and Delaware, both states known for offering privacy for the creation of shell companies. I was later able to confirm through Ari Epstein that they had intentionally created a vast web of shell companies, intentionally designed to obfuscate, which they used to process payments for mugshot removal, making it difficult to trace back to them. Eventually, once we narrowed down our search, we decided to contact and ultimately confront Marc Epstein, Sahar Sarid and Thomas Keesee.

Of particular noteworthiness, the documentary runs thought several documents that ostensibly legitimise Mugshots.com - for example, a Linkedin profile of its founder. What kind of techniques and resources did the team leverage to verify, and ultimately discredit these as fake?

Natasha: We tried to track Michael Robertson, the man listed as the owner of Mugshots.com using public documents, but we weren’t finding anyone connected to mugshots.com or unpublisharrests.com business registration documents by that name. Later, Marc Epstein told me over the phone that Robertson was a red herring. That they had created his profile to mislead people. We also looked through lawsuits against mugshots.com in which they name Robertson as a defendent, but also couldn’t find him and dropped him from the suit.

How did the team come up with the idea for an interactive documentary and how do you think it added to the investigation?

Natasha: This was a complicated investigation with a lot of details that normally wouldn’t make it into the piece, however we thought those details add a lot to the story and make it more suspenseful by adding the clues we found along the way, especially for viewers who want to go a little deeper. Also, transparency is something that is very important to us at Fusion, and we thought making the investigation interactive was a fun and original way of letting viewers in on how we tracked the owners of the site down.

What digital tools and techniques did the team harness to undertake different stages of the project, from the initial investigation to the editing and interactive design stages?

Rachel: The interactive team looked at various solutions to make the video interactive, including building our own framework. We determined it was in our best interest to partner with a company that already had this technology. We went with Rapt Media because their product worked on mobile without downloading an app. We felt that asking readers to download an app was too big of an ask, and we worried about decreased engagement. Since more than half of Fusion’s traffic comes from mobile, we wanted something that met the users where they already were. Our design process was mostly the same, except we focused on the interactive buttons. It was important that the reader wasn’t confused as what was clickable and what wasn’t.

What technical challenges did you face and how did you overcome these?

Rachel: Since the project was conceived from the beginning as an interactive video, the video files were in good shape, and we had the necessary voiceovers, such as “Click here…” The main challenge was pulling off the interactive capability. Once we partnered with Rapt, we worked with the video files in their system. We made necessary tweaks, such as holding a video clip for longer to give the user more time to make a choice. Since this was our first interactive video, a lot of our decisions were made by “that feels right” since we didn’t have user data to work with.

One of the promotional challenges is that the framework provides an embed code, not a video file. That means we cannot natively embed an interactive video on social channels like Facebook. So we created posts that linked to the interactive documentary on our site. If the videos could be embedded directly onto Facebook, I think it would have driven more views since that’s becoming what users are accustomed to. We learned some lessons from our promotions with the mugshots video and tried different things with our second interactive video, which had higher engagement.

How does constructing an interactive documentary differ from other interactive products, like data visualizations and graphs?

Rachel: One of the challenges with video in general is that making tweaks requires the video to be re-rendered. We learned the importance of getting as much feedback at once when possible so we could limit the number of times we had to re-export and reupload the files. Since they are big files, this all takes time.

What lessons did you learn from the project?

Rachel: Interactive content has higher engagement time metrics than traditional story posts, and these videos were no different. The number of people who watched the video wasn’t as high as we would have liked, but it was a very engaged audience. Since we were venturing into new territory, we really had to listen to user feedback and be patient when they didn’t understand the new medium. We learned a lot about different ways that people interacted with the video just from anecdotal evidence from our colleagues and users across the internet. Our number one takeaway was that people needed more time to decide if they wanted to click since they weren’t used to having that choice. In our second interactive video, we held the choice points longer.

Watch the documentary here.