Roo Powell’s physical transformation from a 38-year-old suburban mother from Connecticut into a shy teenager is perhaps the most striking aspect of her new true crime docuseries aimed at catching online predators.
But it’s the countless hours she and her team spend crafting fictitious digital personas, mapping out their lives, hopes and fears in minute detail, where Undercover Underage’s genius lies.
“I know that people are going to say this is absurd, look how old she is,” Ms Powell told The Independent.
“But I’ve never had a video chat with anyone who said ‘you are absolutely an adult, you’re trying to pull one over on me’.
“It’s not because I’m some wonderful actress. It’s the aggregate of all of the things that we deploy. All of our tactics, that’s what makes it believable.”
Among the backroom staff on the series are a strategic social media lead, photographer and digital image specialist, a writer who helps to construct plausible backstories, Internet research lead and a law enforcement officer.
Working together, they give the characters birthdays, astrological signs, work out family dynamics and vulnerabilities, and hobbies such as piano lessons and horse riding.
One of her characters, Flori, is an emotionally fragile high school student from Stamford, Connecticut, who lives with her single mother.
Once the decoy’s online profile has gone live, it doesn’t take long for unsolicited, sexually explicit messages to start arriving.
It’s dark and disturbing work, and viewers see the toll it takes on Ms Powell and her team.
“When I am subjected to those video calls and some of the stuff that comes in, I’m 38, I have coping skills, I have a therapist, I have people around me to support me,” she said.
“The thought that there’s a kid out there going through that alone, and they don’t have any kind of support, I think that drives me more than anything.”
Ms Powell starts out communicating with the offenders over text messages, and says capturing teen-speak is a vital part of the team’s work.
“We study language so much that I can spot an adult pretending to be a teen from a mile away just by the way they type, or just by the emojis they use,” she explained.
“If someone does the crying laughing emoji, you’re automatically over 30. No matter what. There are times where people will be typing and they’re pretending to be a teenager and they’re using two spaces after a period. You don’t do that if you were born after 1985.”
From the outset, they make it clear the adults are speaking to an underage girl, and give them the option to cease communication at any point.
Once the offender begins to solicit sexually explicit photos or other requests, the team attempts to put a name to the offender.
The men often try to mask their true identity, but through savvy Internet research techniques the team will try to peel back the offender’s layers to find their location, employment, and any potential danger signs.
After gaining an offender’s trust through text and video chat, the show follows Ms Powell as she goes to meet the offender, accompanied by police officer Mark Suda, who poses as her Uber driver.
Unlike To Catch a Predator, Undercover Underage does not identify the perpetrators; faces are blurred and voices are distorted.
“I’m not in the business of outing anyone,” says Ms Powell.
“I hand stuff over and let law enforcement do what they do. Everyone needs to go through a due process. I can’t live by ‘the ends justify the means’.”
Ms Powell’s SOSA team meticulously collects and preserves all their communications, fully aware that it might be challenged one day in court.
In the first episode, one of the men they speak turns out to be a 62-year-old school food service worker who was later charged with attempted transfer of illicit materials, and attempted receipt of child pornography.
Ms Powell said social media plays a huge role in enabling online predators, and she works with a consultancy firm which advises platforms on how to mitigate the risks to children.
She said offenders will target children not just on TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat, but even on gaming and colouring book apps.
“The onus is on these companies to make these platforms safe especially for their underage users,” said Ms Powell.
“They need to do something, not just because it’s a liability but because it’s the right thing to do.”
She says artificial intelligence is increasingly being used to detect signs of toxic behaviour on those platforms.
Having seen an explosion in the number of predators grooming underage children online for sex, Ms Powell, a longtime child advocate, set up the non-profit Safe from Online Sex Abuse (SOSA) to try to stem the flood of abuse.
Child advocacy runs in the family for Powell; her Welsh grandfather worked for the UK’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
“He passed before I was born, but my aunts and relatives feel like I’m taking on the mantle,” she said.
Ms Powell is also part Philippina, which is relevant to her work, and says the “fetishisation and dehumanisation of Asian women in particular is really sad”.
Ms Powell says she wants to make online predators fearful that the teenage boy or girl they’re talking to could be a police officer.
“Even if it’s just striking fear into their hearts through self-preservation,” she said.
“I hope that some people watch the show and say ‘I recognise an inclination in myself to want to harm children or collect child pornography so I’m going to get help now’. Maybe because they don’t want to harm a child, they don’t want to ruin a kid’s life, but maybe simply for self-preservation.”
Having honest, empathy-led conversations with your children is the best way for parents to prevent their children from being hurt, she explained.
For that reason, Ms Powell says she doesn’t worry about her own daughters, a teenager and two tweens, being on the Internet.
“The kids that I’m most concerned about is when this happens to kids and they’re embarrassed, they’re ashamed, and they’ve been told not to talk to anyone.”
The first two episodes of Undercover Underage are streaming on Discovery+
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