For years, individuals with criminal records have attested that their path to gainful employment is more difficult than it is for most other groups. The majority of employers conduct detailed criminal background checks on every person they hire, and many also ask candidates to disclose their criminal histories on the job application. Recent changes have made it easier for some ex-offenders to compete for jobs with initiatives like the ban-the-box movement, which requires employers in some areas to remove questions about criminal history from their applications. But as applicants confirm, the process is still far from easy.
Criminal history can tarnish your online reputation. Police reports, arrest records, and mug shots crop up online all the time. Whether you were convicted of a felony, convicted of a misdemeanor, or not convicted at all, your brushes with the law can end up splayed across the annals of the internet. If your arrest or conviction was publicly reported in a local or national newspaper, your attempts at image rehabilitation could be even more difficult.
So what do you do? The best steps to take to fix your online image in light of a criminal record will vary depending on the severity of the crime, the time that has elapsed since the incident, and whether you have repeat offenses on your record.
A Word on Expungement
It’s worthwhile to look into expungement in your state to see whether you are eligible to remove criminal activity from your permanent record. Keep in mind that certain serious crimes cannot be expunged, and expungement is less likely for recent offenses. Expungement is the best-case scenario for reputational damage control. If you manage to expunge a crime, not only will you be able to fill out applications and answer truthfully that you do not have a criminal record, but you will also have better leverage as you try to get content about your criminal history removed from the web.
The good news is that, as a young professional, you have better odds at expungement than most ex-offenders. Judges will typically be more lenient on juvenile offenders. In most jurisdictions, juveniles with criminal records can successfully petition to have their records expunged or sealed after they turn 18. Drug offenses also tend to be easier to expunge than other types of crimes. If you were charged as an adult, you will have more trouble getting your records sealed.
Dealing with Arrest Records
If you cannot expunge your criminal record, then your options for removing all traces of it from the internet are more complicated. While some mugshot sites, criminal record databases, and newspapers that reported on your case will be inclined to remove details about criminal records that have been sealed or expunged, they usually won’t budge if you don’t have legal weight behind your request.
The exception to this rule is information about arrests and mugshots that never resulted in convictions. Per the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employers are not allowed to use arrest records to bar individuals from employment. This ruling exists because arrest records are not a proof of guilt by themselves. Only a conviction can prove that a person was guilty of a crime. Arrest records can only raise suspicion.
The EEOC has no influence over the internet or over the types of content that websites can and cannot publish. One of the biggest online reputational threats for individuals with convictions or arrest records is mugshot websites. These sites pull mugshots from county police department websites and publish them online in bulk. The adage of a picture being worth 1,000 words applies here, as people can search you online, see your mugshot, and draw the worst conclusions. The EEOC can’t stop anyone from assuming you’re a career criminal when they see your mugshot on the web at a glance, even if you were only ever arrested for a minor offense such as participating in a rowdy political rally.
Luckily, lawmakers have started to take aim at these mugshot websites, which often will attempt to charge individuals hundreds of dollars to remove their mugshots from the internet. Many of these sites have been accused of (and sued for) extortion. Some states have laws regarding these types of sites. For instance, in Oregon, if you can provide the operator of a mugshot website with proof that your arrest did not result in a conviction, they are legally compelled to remove the photo from their database at no charge. In Utah, county sheriffs are not allowed to turn mugshots over to anyone who might post them online and charge to have them removed.
You should review the laws in your state to decide the best course of action for getting your mugshot removed from the internet. Particularly if you were arrested but never convicted, there might be a law on your side. Speaking with an attorney to assess your options might also be worthwhile even if you do have a criminal record.
The good news is that Google tweaked its algorithm in 2013 with the specific goal of penalizing mugshot websites. At this point, mugshot sites usually won’t rank highly in your Google search—especially if you have taken steps to build up your online presence. With that said, a mugshot can still crop up in your image searches and hurt your reputation, so pursue removal whenever possible.
Burying Negative Content
If you are dealing with a mugshot site or an article about criminal transgressions that you can’t remove, what you can try to do is bury it.
The idea behind burying negative content online is simple and is used universally by major companies, public officials, and celebrities. When Googling something, the average internet user will not go past the first page of results. This statement is true whether the person is shopping for a specific product, researching a subject, or looking for info on a person online. Someone digging deep to do an online background check on you might browse through the first three or four pages, but in general, guarding the first page of results is your primary objective by far.
The act of burying content on Google is all about flooding the web with neutral and positive content that can push negative search results off the first page. If a damning article appeared about a public official, that person might commission several articles that paint him or her in a better light. The positive content would pull focus from the negative content and offer a course correction for that person’s online reputation. Finding ways to get your name in articles, URLs, website titles, and other highly indexed places around the web will help push pages that mention your criminal history down toward page two or three of your Google search results. If you are dealing with a mugshot site, adding photos of yourself to your blog or website will help, as will uploading video content.
There are reputation management services that will offer to remove your criminal records or arrest records from the web, but most of them just focus on this “reverse SEO” process and positive content development. In the majority of cases, your best bet is to follow the same procedure on your own. If you share a name with a felon and your Google search results constantly come up with mentions of their crime, you would solve the problem by flooding the web with positive content about yourself. Likewise, with any negative criminal activity-related content, your best option is to push out abundant and positive content that shows another side of you.
Michael Klazema has been developing products for criminal background check and improving online customer experiences in the background screening industry since 2009. He is the lead author and editor for Backgroundchecks.com. He lives in Dallas, TX with his family and enjoys the rich culinary histories of various old and new world countries.
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