Undercover Underage Returns

In its first season last year, the Investigation Discovery (ID) original Undercover Underage had a hand in the convictions of four sexual predators in the U.S. Led by Roo Powell, a child advocate and founder of Safe from Online Sex Abuse (SOSA), the series sees the team from the non-governmental organization organizing a series of stings—dubbed “sprints”—in which women, including Powell herself, impersonate young girls online in order to identify and help capture online predators. The eight episodes in season two—which kicked off this week on ID and discovery+—showcase the SOSA team working with the sheriff’s office in Canadian County, Oklahoma. The work by Powell, her three decoys and the SOSA support staff resulted in 16 arrests of ACMs (adults contacting minors) and five convictions. TV Real caught up with Powell to learn about what’s new in season two.

TV REAL: Tell us about what’s different with the second season.
POWELL: We have different decoys now. We brought on a team of actors, very lovely young women, and another person working for SOSA. Being able to show different ages and backgrounds is important. We had a decoy that [looks like she] is as young as 12. That is going to be a little startling for folks. We’ve always assumed that teenagers are the targets. And there are some shocking stories and really good arrests. We’re in a different area with an already established ICAC (Internet Crimes Against Children) team. We spent our time in Oklahoma with them. I’ve been doing this for a while, yet there are always new ways to be shocked. We had one guy who works for the Department of Children and Family Services—he works with foster kids. He even says, “I am who I protect kids from.” You assume that when people take on certain roles, especially roles that serve children, they have a child’s best interests at heart. Maybe he was great to the foster kids in his care, but at the same time, he was actively abusing 14-year-olds online. Season two will also remind people that a perpetrator doesn’t have a specific look. They come from all walks of life, backgrounds, political beliefs and ideologies. Some of them are nice family men. And it just turns out that they are also abusing kids online.

TV REAL: What were some of the critical lessons learned in season one that you brought into season two?
POWELL: We do these sprints [setting up decoys] even when we’re not filming, but each one gives us something new. Laws vary by state, so we can be in one state doing this and X, Y and Z is not a crime, but in the next state over, it is. We did a lot of the same, like really fleshing out the profiles for our decoys. There is a lot of training. We grill them: What’s your age? What’s your zodiac sign? What’s your middle name? What’s your brother’s middle name? You do all this work and don’t want to burn a profile or mess up a case. One of the things that we realized was that we needed more help. We have a bigger support staff in season two. That is helpful because it is hard to liaise with law enforcement, communicate with perpetrators, be on video calls, ensure we’re gathering evidence correctly and fielding all of these conversations. We had a really good support team this time, which was beneficial.

TV REAL: There was a moment in episode one when you take a phone call from your daughter, and it reminded me of how difficult this must be for you. Has it become more manageable to deal with the more you’ve done it?
POWELL: No. It’s terrible being away from my kids. And even though they’re older than they were in season one, it was still difficult because, regardless of age, you still want your mom around. In season one, we did film in Connecticut, where I live. This season we’re in Oklahoma, and it’s a drive and a flight and then another flight and then a drive. It was really hard on us as a family. People say—and I generally think they use it to make working mothers feel guilty—you only have 18 summers with your kids. At one point, I’d had a conversation with a predator, and I was upset about him, and my daughter called me, and she was crying, and I was upset about her. I’m trying to get ready for a sting, but I’m crying, going, Have I sacrificed one of my few precious summers with my girls? That was a tough pill to swallow. I couldn’t do this unless it were for the sake of all kids. If season two can be effective in teaching people about what can happen online, to help prevent predation or keep kids safe, then it’s worth it. My kids understand that the work is important. They still want their mom to drive them to soccer practice! It’s a balance, and bless them, they’re wonderful. I think they’ll get it more when they’re older, but they, thankfully, are proud of Mom. But you still miss your kids.

TV REAL: Given your own experience being a decoy, what advice did you provide the actresses you brought on board for this season?
POWELL: It’s a weird position to be in. They want to do it. They know everything that’s happening. They’re passionate about it. And yet I still feel like I’m saying, Here, let me invite you to some trauma! It’s a rough situation to be in. I sat with them for every single video call. I was right next to them for each one. They always knew that they could bail if it was getting upsetting. They could always hang up, and we would come up with an excuse. I often tried with the video calls to have the video be off on their side. Many times, these perpetrators are doing some gross things online. I would take the phone in that case so they didn’t have to witness it. We have to record it for evidence purposes, but the less they have to see and deal with, the better. That’s how we approach things as a team: Hey, let’s empty the room for this call because we don’t have to poison everyone with this. There was a lot of coaching. It is my duty to protect them and keep them safe. There was one call with one of our decoys, and this guy just said a slew of things that were so vile, and she got really upset. You’re allowing yourself to be degraded and verbally abused, and you’re in a room full of people while it’s happening. I was really mad at this guy. I decided she didn’t have to do more video calls with him. I said, The next time you have to look at him, I promise you it’s going to be his mug shot. He was arrested the next day. All the decoys did a wonderful job. They have strange but extensive acting experience now—I had to pretend to be a 12-year-old girl and do it really well because all of these cases were riding on it.

TV REAL: How did you choose Oklahoma for the second season?
POWELL: In the first season, we were in contact with an ACM [adult contacting a minor] who we refer to as Edward. It turns out he had been previously arrested by the Canadian County sheriff’s office [in El Reno, Oklahoma]. That’s how I ended up first being acquainted with Major Adam Flowers. He and his team are great, so we went down and decided to do a full-fledged op for three months.

TV REAL: Episode one ends with a cliffhanger around “The Handyman”—and his very creepy song! Do we encounter him again?
POWELL: You do see him again. I don’t know what sort of tonic I’ve had to drink to get that voice out of my head. When you watch the show, those are genuine reactions. We are just stunned. There are moments like that where I say, I could have gone my whole life without having to have heard that, seen that or experienced that. But you do see “The Handyman” again in episode two.

TV REAL: I was a bit taken aback by how quickly “The Soldier” was arrested in episode one—I think it was 48 hours after his first contact with the decoy. Is that normal?
POWELL: It comes down to if they are willing to meet in person. And often they are. Often, when these perpetrators are online, they are looking to satisfy a need and want to satisfy it right away. We see that by them sexually gratifying themselves over the phone, or they want to meet with a kid in person. “The Soldier” was really aggressive. If they want to meet, we’ll meet them. And law enforcement was ready. Some of these turnarounds are longer, but we had a couple of really short ones.

TV REAL: As more people watch the show and read about your work, do you think abusers might have second thoughts about doing what they do?
POWELL: 100,000 people could watch the show, and there will still be 100,000 predators out there. I would love to know that predators are watching the show and going, Oh, I should stop doing this. It doesn’t even need to be for noble reasons. It doesn’t even need to be because they don’t want to hurt a kid. It could just be: I don’t want to go to jail; that’s reason enough. I do hope predators are watching because I want them to wonder if the cute girl they’re talking to is actually a 55-year-old detective. That’s the person who’s getting your photos. But also on the compassionate side, I hope that people go, I have a problem; I’m going to get help now.

TV REAL: Has the high profile of the show allowed you to do more at your nonprofit, SOSA?
POWELL: Truthfully, it doesn’t necessarily translate like that. Maybe it’s also because people are like, It’s a nonprofit on TV; I’m sure they’re swimming in dollars. We only have three full-time employees, and only two are paid. We’ve got another part-time employee. We’re still on a shoestring budget. We are so effective as a team. Somebody gave us a $5,000 grant and said, What can you do with this? And so Jordan, who you see in episode one, and I went back down to Oklahoma for four days; we got five arrests in four days and then a sixth one a couple of months later. Every dollar gets put to good use. I hope people see that. That they catch the vision and see that we’re a nonprofit worth investing in.