Flori is a 15-year-old who enjoys taking selfies on Instagram and posting videos on TikTok, but she’s not real.
The teen is actually a 38-year-old mom of three determined to catch online sex offenders.
The child advocate, whose real name is Roo Powell, is chronicling how she stops predators who are looking to lure minors in a discovery+ docuseries, “Undercover Underage.” The show follows Powell’s team as it works in collaboration with law enforcement to detect predators before they realize Powell isn’t who she claims to be.
“For us, raising awareness is so important,” Powell told Fox News on her decision to launch the six-part series. “I’ve been working in the tech space, and we have seen a lot of predators online. And when the pandemic started, more kids were online and, as a result, more perpetrators. It felt like there wasn’t enough being done, and it also seemed like uncharted territory. We were not raised with phones in our hands. So it felt like there needed to be a stronger effort to tackle this issue.”
Powell is the founder of SOSA (Safe from Online Sex Abuse), a nonprofit that supports abuse survivors, spearheads child abuse prevention initiatives and advocates for a safer internet.
“It sounds alarming, but I do think people are just unaware of how bad the issue is,” she said.
“Undercover Underage” has already been compared to Chris Hansen’s “To Catch a Predator,” in which the host famously says, “Why don’t you have a seat?’ to men arriving at a sting house looking to meet minors they’ve contacted online. That Dateline series aired from 2004 until 2007. But Powell stressed that her team’s approach is different.
The crew first creates a fictitious, underage persona living in a different city across the country. Powell will then enter chatrooms specifically for teenagers. Sometimes predators waste no time sending a private message to one of her profiles. Once an adult engages with Powell’s decoy, she communicates with the individual via texts, calls and even video chats to gather as much information as possible about their real identities. During the process, Powell is filmed from a staged bedroom. She also uses a variety of lighting, wigs and filters to hide her real age and appear more youthful.
Every adult who makes contact is explicitly told they are speaking to an underage girl, allowing them to cease communication at any point. However, many still choose to proceed with explicit exchanges. The suspected predators, ranging from school employees to high-profile community figures, have their own fake identities online to avoid getting caught. But once SOSA discovers enough information and makes an identification, it turns over its findings to local law enforcement. Norwalk Police Department Detective Mark Suda, who poses as Powell’s Uber driver in the series, is also on site to discuss the legal ramifications of Powell’s work.
Since these cases are ongoing investigations, the faces of the alleged predators are blurred in the series. Their voices and names are also changed.
“We can’t just take a picture, put it on Instagram and see what happens,” Powell explained. “Every teenage girl — a real girl — has a very layered life. I have a teenage daughter, and she has friends, favorite classes and extracurricular activities. So when we build a teenage decoy, we have to give her that same layered life. She has an astrological sign, a favorite color, a pet with a name – all the things that make her a believable person. She’s tweeting a certain way, posting photos a certain way and making TikToks a certain way. That’s when the messages come in.”
“We’re not law enforcement,” she continued. “We take all the information we’ve gathered and hand over our evidence to law enforcement for them to do their work. The last thing we want to do is get in their way. They might conduct their own investigations. Sometimes we give them our log-ins so they can communicate themselves as our teenage decoys, or they’ll continue to work with us. We’ll both be logged into the account and see the messages as they come. And whenever we place a decoy in town, we make sure we have law enforcement involved.”
When it comes to cyber creeps, Powell noted that “women are the unicorn.”
“I have not come across a perpetrator that is a woman,” she said. “I have come across men pretending to be women. And a lot of law enforcement that I’ve spoken to will probably tell you the same thing. It’s very rare to see a woman predator online.”
She described how the perpetrators look like “the men we come across in our everyday lives.”
“It could be the person that coaches your kid, the community leader, a family friend, the one with the wife and kids who’s always nice,” she said. “The truth is that it could be anyone. There’s no particular profile. It’s not the troll under the bridge.”
And as for the decoys themselves, Powell said teenage boys are targeted, too.
“I’m Asian-American and we do sometimes, unfortunately, see the fetishization of Asian girls when we’re communicating with perpetrators,” she said. “We often see the men ask where the dad is. They want to know how much parental oversight is happening. Are they foster kids? Do they have a lot of alone time? Do they have older siblings? A lot of times, they’re going to focus on someone who they believe can be isolated in some way.”
Powell admitted that witnessing adults using the internet to groom, sexually exploit and abuse children online takes its toll. The documentary shows how these predators eagerly share sexually explicit photos and videos. Some have no qualms initiating video calls where the abuse worsens.
“It is overwhelming and it’s upsetting,” she said. “But I have no choice. I have to stay in those conversations because the cost is too high. It’s better if I go through it than an actual teenager, an actual child. I’m an adult with reasonable coping mechanisms and support. I’m less vulnerable. And I feel strongly about that. Our children are vulnerable and it’s our job to protect them.”
And keeping the charade going before the perpetrator suspects anything is always a nerve-wracking experience.
“My mind is going a million miles a minute,” said Powell. “I have to be a believable teenager. I have to sell it, but I’m also gathering as much information as possible. I’m looking for any clues as I take a look at the background. I can’t get angry during those calls when the abuse is happening. I can’t break character. Those are probably the most stressful times for me. I still get nervous before every call. And once the call starts, I have to get through it. There’s no room for error.”
The scenarios are horrific, but Powell said parents and caregivers need to look out for any apps their children download that have a chat component to them.
“Even something as a coloring book app or a video game, if there’s an opportunity to communicate, people will take advantage of that,” she warned. “I wouldn’t want a parent to drop their guard down because they think, ‘Oh, this is just a coloring book app.’”
Powell hopes the docuseries will empower viewers to take part in their communities to combat sex abuse and exploitation. In her eyes, it does take a village to raise a child.
“I think the way that we can truly, effectively combat online sex abuse is by working together as a community,” she explained. “That might look like a number of ways, like changing laws, advocating for better internet initiatives, talking to students in classrooms … This is a multifaceted approach. I hope it inspires people to take a stand. I would love for parents to feel they understand what’s out there a little better. Finding just one perpetrator isn’t enough.”
“Undercover Underage” is available for streaming on discovery+.