Pennsylvania Woman Accused of Using Deepfake Technology to Harass Cheerleaders

Three teenagers, members of a cheerleading program in Bucks County, Pa., received a series of harassing text messages over the course of last summer. So did their parents and the owners of the gym where they practiced.

Some of the anonymous messages contained doctored images and videos that attempted to incriminate the teenagers with fake depictions showing some of them nude, drinking alcohol or vaping. At times, the text messages took an even darker turn, telling at least one girl to die by suicide.

On March 4, the mother of another teenager in the cheerleading program was arrested and charged with sending the messages, apparently using deepfake technology to add likenesses of the girls to incriminating images, law enforcement officials said.

In an arrest affidavit, the Hilltown Township Police Department in Bucks County accused Raffaela Marie Spone, 50, of cyberbullying three teenagers she knew at the Victory Vipers cheerleading gym in Doylestown, Pa., about 35 miles north of Philadelphia. Police officials said that over the summer, Ms. Spone had sent anonymous text messages from several fake phone numbers to the cheerleaders, their parents and the gym owners.

The police suspect that the altered media was created through deepfake technology, which is becoming both more sophisticated and accessible, playing into experts’ concerns that it can be used to harass or commit crimes. With deepfake technology, people can take a still image and map it onto an existing video to disparagingly alter the appearance of someone.

“This technology is not only very prevalent, but easy to use,” said Matt Weintraub, the Bucks County district attorney, whose office has been overseeing the case. “This is something your neighbor down the street can use, and that’s very scary.”

Ms. Spone, of Chalfont, Pa., was charged last week with three counts of cyber-harassment of a child and three other counts of harassment. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Ms. Spone was arrested but released on the condition that she appear at a preliminary hearing on March 30. Attempts to reach Ms. Spone for comment by phone and email were unsuccessful, and it was unclear if she has a lawyer.

On July 8, after the cheerleading gym had reopened amid the pandemic, Madi Hine, 17, was getting private tumbling coaching and waiting for a tryout when the owners approached her mother about anonymous text messages they had received with incriminating doctored media. Her mother, Jennifer Hine, 47, said in an interview that images from her daughter’s social media were either taken out of context or manipulated to make her daughter look like she was a bad influence at the gym. One such video seemed to show her daughter vaping, a practice the gym had strict policies in place against.

Later that day, Madi Hine approached her mother crying hysterically about the harassing texts, her mother said. Her daughter admitted that she was embarrassed, and told her that she had been receiving anonymous text messages depicting her naked or telling her to die by suicide for a month before the gym’s owners received anything.

“I was so upset,” Jennifer Hine said. “What kept her sane was getting back to that gym.”

Days after Ms. Hine’s daughter returned to the gym, Ms. Hine said, she began to receive anonymous text messages on her cellphone about her daughter's whereabouts and how the sender was disappointed that her daughter had returned to the gym. That prompted Ms. Hine to move her daughter to an out-of-state gym. But in August, Ms. Hine said, similar texts started to go to her daughter’s friends, too.

The gym’s owners expressed regret for the campaign of harassment.

“Victory Vipers has always promoted a family environment and we are sorry for all individuals involved,” the gym’s owners, Mark McTague and Kelly Cramer, said in a statement, adding that the incident occurred outside the gym and that all the athletes involved no longer attended there. “We have very well-established policies, and a very strict anti-bullying policy in our program.

Police officials said they executed multiple search warrants throughout the year to determine the source of the text messages. Investigators requested that providers reveal the IP addresses associated with the assorted phone numbers, which led back to Ms. Spone’s residence.

On Dec. 18, the police said, they went into Ms. Spone’s home with a search warrant and seized several devices, including multiple cellphones. With another approved search warrant on Dec. 28, the police said, they analyzed the devices and found that six messages on one of the cellphones lined up with the date the victims had received the texts.

Henry Ajder, who researches deepfakes, said crimes like the one Ms. Spone has been accused of conducting are something he has seen coming. Generating deepfakes has become more accessible to people through apps, and face swapping and lip synchronization tools. People can even hire others through online forums to generate more realistic deepfakes.

While many of the apps that are available, like one through the genealogy website MyHeritage, don’t produce incredibly realistic images, Mr. Ajder anticipates that in the next five years, technology to create more realistic depictions could emerge more widely.

This is a concern, Mr. Ajder said, as it could be used in crude ways to attack individuals, create political disinformation, make cybersecurity vulnerable, conduct fraud and manipulate stock markets.

In the future, the crimes could outnumber digital forensic experts, he said. This could affect how, or if, crucial evidence can be verified in legal proceedings.

“Try not to panic,” Mr. Ajder said, adding that the advanced deepfake technology is not readily available yet. “But we, as a global society, need to prepare at different levels.”

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