AURORA, Colo. — Allegations of a social media sextortion scheme, first exposed by student journalists at Rangeview High School, can have serious mental health impacts on students who report they were victimized by the mystery Instagram account.
Aurora police define sextortion as a kind of exploitation that blackmails individuals, often with the threat of publishing an explicit photograph. The department is investigating the claims, and report so far, six students have reported being a direct target of the alleged scheme. Dozens of others told investigators they received messages asking them to pay for uncensored images.
The Rangeview Raider Review first exposed the allegations, which claim an Instagram account demanded students pay for explicit, but censored, photographs to be removed. Otherwise, it threatened to publish the uncensored version, according to student journalists.
The account also apparently asked other users for money to see the uncensored versions of the pictures.
As of this week, Aurora police said they have reports related to the investigation from students at the following schools:
- Rangeview High School
- Smoky Hill High School
- Gateway High School
- Vista PEAK Preparatory School
- Cherokee Trail High School
- Overland High School
- Aurora Hills Middle School
- Mrachek Middle School
Detectives said they are working closely with Aurora Public Schools and the Cherry Creek School District to identify other potential victims. Aurora police are working with Meta to locate the suspect profiles and determine the legitimacy of the photos and videos that have been shared or posted.
Aurora high school student journalists reveal alleged social media sextortion
“The internet's not as anonymous as a lot of people think," said Aurora Police Sgt. Joseph Sullivan, who is part of the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force Program assigned to the Homeland Security Investigations Cyber Guardian Task Force.
The ICAC Task Force is a national effort funded by the federal government, comprised of 61 coordinated task forces that represent more than 5,000 law enforcement organizations.
“Sextortion is essentially a form of extortion, meaning it's like blackmailing," said Sgt. Sullivan. "I can say we're working on developing leads [in the sextortion case]. We're continually having victims or involved parties come forward to talk to us. But as far as much past that, it's still really in its infancy in the grand scheme of the whole investigation.”
Depending on what investigators learn, the people behind the alleged sextortion scheme could face distribution of child pornography and extortion charges, which are both felonies.
“Some of these images and videos that were leaked on Instagram are of nude people. But I can't necessarily identify and say this is a child or not, especially if they're not coming forward and we can't identify them," said Sgt. Sullivan. “We can't say that this is child exploitation, because we can't identify this as a child without someone coming forward and saying, 'Yeah, that was me.'”
Data shows in sextortion cases, 60% of the time victims know the blackmailer. In other instances, the victim met the offender online, which could be a single person or a coordinated group of extorters. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) reports that studies show girls appear in the overwhelming majority of child sexual abuse material, and prepubescent children are at the greatest risk of being depicted. It continues to say that when boys are victimized, they are more likely than girls to be subjected to very explicit or egregious abuse.
“This case blew up because it was spread across so many different schools," Sgt. Sullivan said about the current investigation impacting at least two school districts. “Just today, I got another report of an isolated incident of a young man involved in the exact same thing. I would say roughly two or three reports a month come in, of this type of situation, of just the sextortion side of things... In our world, it's fairly common."
Sgt. Sullivan is a father to two young children.
“I can't talk about this stuff at home because it is... think of the worst thing imaginable you could think happening to a child and then go worse," said Sgt. Sullivan. “Emotionally, it's hard. It sucks. It's awful that my job exists, that people do these things to kids... I keep it at work. I try really hard to not let my work affect my kids... The reason I got into this work is to help people, right? I accepted the trauma that I'm going to endure throughout my life, in my career, to help people."
He does not want to shelter his children unnecessarily from technology because of what could happen to them, and instead wants to educate them about online safety.
“The people that are preying on our children are very good at what they do. They're extremely manipulative, and this is what they do for a living... So, understanding that when kids make mistakes, it's not their fault. They're still trying to learn and grow up," Sgt. Sullivan said. "Us as adults, and parents, are failing our kids by not talking to them and teaching them about appropriate internet behavior.”
Carolynn Ames is one of the student journalists at Rangeview High School who first reported on the sextortion allegations.
“Kids take their lives over things like this... Students already face enough threats and competition and pressure in school, that adding to that, mentally, can just be too overwhelming.” Ames said. "I don't know if justice can be served mentally. But, you know, legally, we can do something about that I think.”
Ames said she was disturbed to see other students joking about the Instagram account. She believes this case skyrocketed because it used social media, and reached so many people so quickly.
“It's important that we don't normalize this behavior, because normalizing it is one step forward in contributing to it, really," said Ames. “This isn't the fault of technology. This is the fault of the people behind it.”
Ames believes the negatives outweigh the positives when it comes to social media.
“On my personal mental health, it's been a little bit detrimental. I think, sometimes I get in these days where I'm just like, 'Oh, I don't want to get out of bed, like, I don't want to do anything.' And I go on TikTok, I go on Instagram. And then I see how much you know, better other people are doing or what they're doing with their lives. And I'm like, 'Why am I not doing that?'” Ames explained.
Randi Smith has been a professor of psychology for around 17 years at Metropolitan State University of Denver. She said children who are victimized by crimes like sextortion feel shame, fear, and humiliation.
“It puts people at a tremendous risk for self harm and suicide, because of this horrible fear of being publicly humiliated and ashamed," Smith said. "When we're in middle school, in high school, one of the primary challenges is finding one's own identity. And so much of that is done vis-a-vis peers... We have this whole thing in psychology that we call the imaginary audience. And it's not always imaginary, sometimes it's real. And when people are very tuned in to what one another are doing, the sense of this public humiliation is heightened, the identity is not fully formed, and the potential for devastating consequences feels very, very great.”
Smith said it has been extremely challenging for her clients in the past to overcome their sense of shame following sextortion. She hopes parents whose children find themselves in similar situation react with sensitivity and support.
“It would be great if we had more education about this for young people. But I think in our culture, we do such a poor job of educating young people about sex in general. In many families, it's taboo to even talk about sex," Smith said. “If it does happen, I think parents can acknowledge that maybe they didn't have all the information or the ability to protect their child from it. And to recognize that the child may not have willingly created an image, may not have been engaging in quote, unquote, sexual behavior, but may have fallen prey to manipulation."
Aurora police ask anyone with information to contact a detective on the case by calling non-emergency dispatch at (303)627-3100. The case number is AP2024-10276.
Individuals can also report information through the Safe2Tell website.
Homeland Security Investigations special agents can be requested for presentations at schools, community groups, corporations, and nonprofits that want to learn more about protecting themselves online against child sexual exploitation and abuse. To request a presentation, email email@example.com.