Innocent people listed as sex offenders on databases
A network of Arizona-based Internet companies is mining data from sex-offender sites maintained by law-enforcement agencies and using it to demand money and harass those who complain or refuse to pay.
State and national registries are set up to provide information on where the most serious sex offenders are living and warn that the information cannot be used to threaten, harass or intimidate offenders.
But sex offenders and others profiled by the Arizona companies accuse their operators, in a civil lawsuit and elsewhere, of running an extortion racket by demanding up to $499 for removing names, criminal histories, photographs, addresses, phone numbers and other personal data from their non-government sites.
They accuse operators of posting inaccurate or old information and using the threat of exposure as a sex offender as leverage.
Operators of SORArchives.com, Offendex.com and Onlinedetective.com did not take down individual profiles after payments were made and launched online harassment campaigns against those who balked at financial demands or filed complaints, an eight-month Call 12 for Action investigation found.
Call 12 found the websites list individuals as sex offenders who no longer are required to register and whose names have been removed from state databases. Among the hundreds of thousands of names that appear, the websites include names and addresses of people who never have been arrested or convicted of a sex crime.
The Internet-savvy operators ensure that anyone in their databases can be found easily on a Google search. They have prominently profiled specific individuals, published their home and e-mail addresses, posted photographs of their relatives and copied their Facebook friends onto the offender websites.
“Enjoy the exposure you have created for yourself,” operators said in an e-mail to an offender last year. “Unfortunately you took (your) family with you.”
Internet searches are ubiquitous today for screening and verifying everything from financial applications to resumes. If someone’s name pops up on a sex-offender database, it could affect their ability to get a job, a loan or even a date.
Court filings, computer searches, corporation records and interviews show the two operators of the websites are Chuck Rodrick, 51, and Brent Oesterblad, 52, longtime Valley residents who for the past decade have operated a series of Web-based businesses in Maricopa County. They both have felony convictions on fraud-related charges.
Rodrick and Oesterblad refused to discuss the websites and denied ownership.
Those who challenged Rodrick and Oesterblad said the interactions frequently turned ugly, with intimidating calls, vitriolic e-mails and threats of lawsuits.
“I feel degraded, humiliated, harassed and intimidated,” said Gordon Grainger of Montana, a former registered sex offender who said he has tried to get his name removed from the websites. “I won’t lie. It’s gotten to the point where I have had suicidal thoughts.”
Grainger in January recorded two calls with Rodrick and posted them on various websites, including YouTube.
“We have a soft spot for innocent people. We take them (profiles) down all of the time when people can prove they are innocent. … In return, what are you going to do for us?” Rodrick said in one call. “I don’t care if you guys have an opinion on Offendex or call it extortion or whatever.”
Rodrick acknowledged that he was being recorded in the call. He maintained that the websites are legal and insisted that no attorney general in the United States would take action against the websites.
SORArchives, Offendex and Onlinedetective were built using data from official state sex-offender registries, according to a Silicon Valley computer engineer who said Rodrick paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars to design and update the websites.
State police and departments of correction generally are responsible for maintaining official registries, which can include an offender’s name, photograph, physical characteristics, addresses and description of the crime. The Arizona Department of Public Safety, which operates the state’s official registry, azsexoffender.org, states on the site that “misuse of this information may result in criminal prosecution.”
People named on the sites say they have submitted complaints with attorneys general in Arizona, Louisiana, Montana, Virginia and Washington and with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other federal agencies.
No law-enforcement agency has taken any court action against Rodrick and Oesterblad over the websites, records show.
In March, California lawyer Janice Belucci filed a federal civil lawsuit in Los Angeles on behalf of 10 people. The lawsuit accuses Rodrick and Oesterblad of racketeering and extortion.
Lawyers representing the website operators this month responded with a motion to dismiss the case for a lack of jurisdiction.
Belucci said law enforcement has failed to act despite ample evidence.
“Most people don’t care about sex offenders,” she said. “They are the victims in all of this.”
Contacting operators directly isn’t easy; no business licenses seen for SORArchives, Offendex
SORArchives and Offendex share the same slogan: “Find sex offenders in your area … Before they find you!”
But operators of the websites can’t be easily identified or located. SORArchives and Offendex do not list on their sites any phone numbers, addresses or contact information beyond online e-mail forms.
Contact information sent via e-mails to site users directs them to a phone number and voice mail registered in Canada. Payments are made through electronic third parties to unnamed recipients at the websites.
The websites in May were registered in Australia with domain names provided by a company that operates worldwide. But Internet protocol address searches and court records indicate that servers hosting the websites are located in Tempe.
The websites use PayPal and a credit-card billing system to collect money from users.
Offendex stated last year that it operated within the laws of Arizona. A similar notice on the Onlinedetective website states that any disputes will be resolved in a Maricopa County court.
Extensive record searches show SORArchives and Offendex operated without business licenses or any corporation filings. Any corporation or limited-liability company doing business in the state is required by law to register with the Arizona Corporation Commission. Trade names and partnerships must be registered with the secretary of state. Some cities also require business licenses.
Days after Call 12 attempted to contact Rodrick and Oesterbald in December, the Offendex website was taken down. Users were redirected to Onlinedetective.com.
Onlinedetective is a registered corporation. Records show Rodrick and Oesterblad were equal partners when they launched Onlinedetective in 2002. In 2011, Rodrick’s name was removed from company documents, leaving Oesterblad and his wife, Sarah Shea, as the only managers listed on the documents.
The websites are often changed, from links to terms of service to text. For instance, Onlinedetective recently directed users to SORArchives, but the link later was removed.
SORArchives nearly mirrors the former Offendex site. The websites share the same visual elements, graphics, link capabilities and nearly identical terms of service.
SORArchives says records for 750,000 active sex offenders are available for online searches. The site promises to protect families from the menace of sex offenders in their neighborhoods by providing access to present and past criminal records.
Sex offenders are sometimes removed from state registries because their crimes have been reclassified and no longer are considered serious enough to require registration. Some offenders are required to register only with law enforcement, and their names would not appear on public registries.
Others have done their time and have sought court orders to remove their names from state and national registries.
“Even if the sex offender is not required to register that does not mean the record itself goes away,” SORArchive states. “To help stop the threat, you must know how to locate the offenders.”
Customers say they pay for removal of names but information remains online
Read the full story here
The Republic | azcentral.com