Cheerleading Mom Is Accused of Creating ‘Deepfakes’ of Teens to Harass, Threaten Them

A Pennsylvania woman is accused of spending months harassing and threatening teenagers on her daughter’s cheerleading squad using manipulated images made to look like the girls were smoking, drinking, and posting nude images of themselves to social media.

Raphella Spone, from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, allegedly sent images that were edited and videos created using “deepfake” technology to the owner of the Victory Vipers cheer squad and girls’ parents, according to the criminal complaint viewed by Motherboard, in an effort to get them thrown off the team. She also sent texts and voicemails to the girls themselves, telling them “you should kill yourself.”

“The suspect is alleged to have taken a real picture and edited it through some Photoshopping app to make it look like this teenaged girl had no clothes on to appear nude, when in reality that picture was a screengrab from the teenager’s social media in which she had a bathing suit on,” Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub told Philadelphia local news outlet WPVI-TV.

The complaint doesn’t specify how Spone allegedly created the videos—or whether they’re technically deepfakes, which are algorithmically-generated face-swaps, or manipulated on the surface with apps or Photoshop. But services and apps that create realistic-looking deepfakes are easy to find and use online. She wouldn’t have needed high-powered computing or software engineering experience to make one.

From July to November 2020, the complaint claims, Spone sent texts of these manipulated images to the owner as well as the girls’ families. One of the teens’ mothers received texts of her juvenile daughter in a bikini, with comments written over the images about “toxic traits, revenge, dating boys, and smoking,” according to the complaint. Another of the mothers received a text claiming her daughter “was drinking at the shore, smokes, pot, and uses ‘attentionwhore69’ as a screen name.”

She sent the texts and voicemails from multiple different phone numbers; according to the complaint, she was using an iPhone app that generates fake phone numbers to send the text messages. Based on tracking the IP addresses of the messages, police located and searched Spone’s home in December 2020, and seized cell phones, a Facebook Portal, laptops, an Xbox,  a modem, Verizon digital TV signal boxes, and smart TVs.

One of the girls’ fathers, George Ratel, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he believes it was revenge for telling his daughter she couldn’t socialize with Spone’s daughter anymore. “I don’t know what would push her to this point,” Ratel said. “As a dad I was pretty upset about it. It’s an image put out there of my daughter that is simply not true.”

One of the girls targeted, 17-year-old Madi Hime, received texts saying she had no friends and should kill herself. “I do get hate comments, nothing to this extreme, but I was really upset,” Hime told WPVI-TV. “I was like, ‘Who says this to someone? Who thinks it’s ok?’ It made me more mad than upset.”

Despite years of hype from startups, research teams and social media companies devoted to detecting and preventing malicious deepfakes in the political and fake news spheres since the tech emerged in 2017, the most pervasive and damaging use of algorithmically-generated synthetic imagery continues to be against women.

Spone is charged with cyber harassment of a child and anonymous harassment, with a court date set for March 30.

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