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Aurora high school journalists reveal alleged social media sextortion of fellow students

Report from The Rangeview Raider Review sparks Aurora Police investigation
High school journalists reveal alleged social media sextortion of fellow students
Posted at 5:33 AM, Jan 22, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-22 19:19:34-05

AURORA, Colo. — Student journalists at Rangeview High School revealed a startling alleged social media nightmare that sparked an Aurora Police Department sextortion investigation.

Sextortion is when scammers blackmail children, typically by threatening to publish an explicit image unless the victim sends money.

On Jan. 17, the student newspaper The Rangeview Raider Review published an article detailing an Instagram account that reportedly obtained illicit photographs of students and sold the uncensored versions. The student journalists said victims had to pay the account to have their photograph removed.

“It became a big thing that was spreading throughout our school," said Ione Narajka, a senior who worked on the piece. “Less than a week ago, some Instagram accounts started popping up and sharing censored illicit photos of high schoolers. There were about 100 in total, at least, and about a dozen of them were from Rangeview... We decided, let's write a story about it. And like, put clarifying information, try and figure out how many victims there are, and potentially who's doing this.”

Aurora high school student journalists reveal alleged social media sextortion

Aurora PD on Monday confirmed an investigation into the alleged sextortion. The department said detectives have received reports from students and officials at Rangeview, Smoky Hill, Gateway, Vista Peak, Cherokee Trail and Overland high schools, as well as Aurora Hills and Mrachek middle schools.

According to Aurora police, in six instances, students told detectives they were contacted by the suspect(s) via Instagram. In dozens of other instances, students reported that they received unsolicited invitations to pay to join an Instagram "Close Friends List" where sexually explicit material had been posted. The Close Friends feature allows Instagram users to post private content and select who can view it.

Narajka said one of the victims claimed the image was doctored and is not actually them.

"It led to the possible thing that people's Artificial Intelligence (AI) generated nudes could be leaked," Narajka said. “They took lewd photos, possibly real, possibly changed. And they covered the nude bits, like the actual illicit part of it, but kept the face. So you could see all the victims, but you couldn't see exactly what the photo was.”

According to Narajka, the account told victims to pay them in order for their photograph to be removed. From what she learned, the account also apparently offered to sell the uncensored version of photographs to other users.

“It turned into extortion because the person was apparently trying to get people to pay to take their photos down. It was apparently anywhere from $5 to $25 for them to remove these photos from the Instagram," Narajka said. “The close friends list is a separate group of people that you could have to see a story. And so, they were saying give me $10 and I'll put you in my close friends list, and there, I'm posting all of the uncensored photos.”

Narajka said the student journalists are working diligently to protect the identities of the alleged victims they recognize.

"You don't want to make it even harder for them than it is," Narajka said.

The Instagram account in question has been removed, she said.

Colorado Sen. Bob Gardner, R-El Paso and Teller counties, has worked on issues related to the subject during his time in Colorado's state legislature.

“When I first went to the House, this issue wasn't on anybody's radar. Quite frankly, you know, people were using flip phones and children didn't have them. Teenagers didn't have them," Gardner said. “But very quickly, during my time in the House, we began to have parents telling us about these things, schools telling us about these horrendous things. We had a revenge porn bill at that time that passed.”

The "revenge porn" bill passed in 2014 made it illegal to distribute intimate and identifiable pictures without consent and that are intended to cause serious emotional distress. In 2018, Colorado lawmakers strengthened the original law, by removing the emotional distress requirement and making it a criminal offense even if there is no nudity depicted.

In 2017, Gardner was one of the prime sponsors of a piece of legislation that made it a criminal offense to post a private image of a juvenile. Two years later, he carried a uniform law allowing victims of revenge porn to file for punitive damages.

“The interesting thing about what is happening in this case in Aurora is that it's not simply unauthorized disclosure of intimate images. That it's criminal extortion," Gardner said. “Criminal extortion is already on the books. It is a Class 4 felony in Colorado, punishable by up to six years in prison.”

After reading the article published by The Rangeview Raider Review, Gardner said he was most shocked by the alleged demands for money.

“This is just a whole new level. It's like, 'I'm going to make money off of anybody and everybody by generating images or getting ahold of images.' And that's disturbing to me that it's now calculated, it's not simply done out of anger," Gardner said. “I do think that we may need to revisit some of our legislation to deal with the artificial intelligence aspect of this... We'll be looking at this, of course. I'll be talking to the Colorado District Attorney's Council about do they think that the statutes cover this, and I'm sure they're very aware as well. And we'll be on top of it.”

Aurora PD is working with Aurora Public Schools and Cherry Creek School District to identify additional victims. Detectives are also working with Meta, which owns Instagram, to identify the owner of the Instagram account.

Anyone with information is asked to call Aurora non-emergency dispatch at 303-627-3100 and reference case number AP2024-10276. Information can also be shared anonymously through the Safe2Tell website.

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