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Pennsylvania cheer squad mom allegedly cyberbullied minors with deepfakes, officials say

Raffaela Spone is accused of using deepfake images and videos to bully several of her daughter's cheer squad teammates, according to Bucks County prosecutors.
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A Pennsylvania woman is facing multiple harassment charges for allegedly creating deepfake images and videos and using them to anonymously cyberbully her daughter's cheer squad, according to authorities in Bucks County.

In charging documents, the Hilltown Township Police Department allege that Raffaela Spone, 50, harassed several of the staff and members of the Victory Vipers cheer squad in Doylestown.

After the first victim came forward alleging cyber harassment, several others came forward too, police said, and at least one victim received a message encouraging suicide.

Spone allegedly created digitally manipulated images and videos — known as deepfakes — that falsely showed her daughter's teammates drinking, vaping, and posing nude, all activities that would get them kicked off the squad.

Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub told NBC News on Sunday that the use of deepfake images was "one of the more disturbing aspects of this case, because it would seem to me this technology is available to anyone."

"I don't know mechanically how she was able to do it, but I can tell you that she's an ordinary citizen — I don't know that she has any more technological proficiency than your neighbor down the street," Weintraub said.

"It was an unsophisticated attempt, but nevertheless it was successful," Weintraub said.

Police wrote that they identified Spone by searching the phone numbers that anonymously sent the bullying text messages to several cheer squad members. The numbers belonged to a smartphone app called Pinger, which allows users to send text messages.

With court orders, police acquired the user's IP address from the Pinger app, and then used the IP address to acquire Spone's name and address from the cell phone carrier, the police said.

Further analysis showed the device was used to send messages on the dates the squad members received them, police said.

Weintraub said the targeting of the teammates "was not random" and said that Spone's alleged motive would be laid out in trial.

Spone was fingerprinted and released on March 10 pending a pretrial hearing that is scheduled for March 30.

In a statement, the Victory Vipers said the group "has always promoted a family environment and we are sorry for all individuals involved."

"We have very well-established policies, and a very strict anti-bullying policy in our program," the statement read. "When this incident came to our attention last year we immediately initiated our own internal investigation and took the appropriate action at the time. This incident happened outside of our gym. When the criminal investigation ensued, we fully cooperated with law enforcement. All athletes involved, are no longer a part of our program."

Spone's attorney did not immediately respond to an NBC News request for comment.