Teen’s nightmare: When private photos go viral

MIAMI -- Juan and Maria Varona are struggling through a situation no parent should ever have to wrestle with. Hackers have intruded into their lives, violated their daughter’s privacy. And they want others to know that it can happen to them, too.

About four years ago, their youngest child, Angie Varona, uploaded some photos to her private Photobucket account. Among the pictures: Angie posing in her bikini and in a bra and panties, images meant only for her then-boyfriend to see. She was 14 and brash -- as many teens are at that age -- without the foresight to suspect what could happen next.

“It was stupid,” Angie, now 18, says. “I guess I thought I looked appealing and sexy. My self esteem wasn’t what it should’ve been either.”

Plenty of her friends were doing much of the same. Posting provocative pictures on their Facebook walls. Sending images they would later regret to boyfriends who would one day become ex-boyfriends.

But Angie’s account was hacked, and six months later a school friend emailed her an ominous note: Her pictures were appearing on porn sites.

At the time, her name did not accompany her photos. That would come later.

That and people posing as Angie Varona on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and assorted forums and message boards.

Eventually, the nightmarish notoriety would land the Miami teen on ABC’s Nightline to warn other girls about the possible consequences of posting provocative photos -- no matter how private the website.

“All this time, I wish I had listened to my parents,” she says. “None of this would’ve happened and I would just be living through the regular drama of high school.”

Remembering that initial discovery still makes her shudder. “I was crying hysterically. I couldn’t believe it,” she says. And she didn’t know then how bad it would get. Over the next four years, she would become an unwitting and unwilling Internet sex symbol.

She immediately told her parents, who went to Miami-Dade police and hired a lawyer. The cops couldn’t do anything about it. There was no nudity in the photos, so it didn’t qualify as child pornography. But it was the family’s introduction to the underworld of child erotica.

“Some of those sites had girls younger than Angie, naked,” recalls Juan Varona, a teacher. “Kids take pictures of themselves in the bathroom and don’t understand how others can just hack into their accounts.”

Varona says he was disappointed in his daughter when he found out what had happened. He and his wife had warned her about the perils of the Internet. As a teacher, he was aware of the growing problem of teens posting and sending nude or semi-nude photos of themselves. But he also recognized that Angie’s photos were no more than “bathing suit shots. It wasn’t any different than what you see other girls wearing on the beach or in Victoria’s Secret (catalogs).”

The family’s lawyer emailed some of the websites to ask that the photos be taken down. A few complied. One hacker was tracked to Spain, too, and for a few months the Varonas thought the problem might be contained.

Juan, however, was anxious. “I knew that when something gets out there, when something goes viral, you can’t stop it. It takes on a life of its own.”

And it did, with the photos making their way to pedophile sites. Within weeks, classmates and teachers at her high school knew about her Internet photos.

“They would stare at me funny in the hallways and I knew why,” Angie recalls. “If I was dating a guy, they would send him the pictures from one of the websites and ask, do you want to date a girl that the whole world can see her body?”

Eventually, the Varonas decided to home school her. It was a momentous change for Angie, a gifted student who had enjoyed the social and academic aspects of the classroom.

Now in 12th grade, she looks back with regret at what she has missed -- her junior ring ceremony, senior class activities, the camaraderie.

She has changed. She’s no longer as friendly as she once was.

She can’t wait to move out of Miami, out of Florida, and hopes that leaving home for college will put the past behind her.

She is considering changing her name.

The most difficult part for her? “The embarrassment to my family. Say what you want about me, but don’t go around bashing my parents. They didn’t do this.”