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‘I Go Undercover to Catch Sexual Predators’ | #childpredator | #onlinepredator | #sextrafficing

The first time I posed as a teenager online, the response was tremendous and abhorrent.

It was 2019 and I was running the creative department of a tech safety company, where I would see all these stories of the online sex abuse of children, but struggled to find a way of telling them that did not feel exploitative.

So, instead of telling someone else’s story, I decided to demonstrate what happens when kids go online; the ubiquity of child predation, by posting a couple of pictures of myself posing as a teenager on social media. The response I received was shocking.

Roo Powell started SOSA (Safe from Online Sex Abuse) in 2020.

I had seen lots of these conversations happen before, but being on the receiving end of it and watching it happen in real time brought up a lot of emotion. I was a grown woman with coping skills, access to therapy, and an understanding of abuse in the world, and found what was happening really upsetting.

What must it be like to be a child receiving these messages?

I thought about how silent and hidden this type of abuse usually is; how often parents or caregivers never find out. This was happening so quickly that a child could be abused in the time it takes for me, as a parent, to run a quick errand and come back home. I really wanted to bring that to light.

The following year I left my previous role and started SOSA (Safe from Online Sex Abuse), a non-profit organization that combats sexual abuse in all its forms, but particularly online abuse and exploitation that can lead to the in-person abuse of minors.

That abuse often looks like perpetrators attempting to commit physical abuse after connecting with their victim online, or creating, collecting, and disseminating child sex abuse material, all of which we try to tackle through prevention, intervention, and support.

On the prevention side, we communicate with schools, young people, and parents. We provide a lot of empathy-led education, because we are very anti-victim blaming, and I speak with legislators about enacting laws that would make our kids and wider community safer.

Through our intervention work, we collaborate with law enforcement in order to identify bad actors online. This involves launching fictional teenage profiles and communicating with adults contacting minors (ACMs) in order to find their true identities and gather evidence of abuse.

Working in tandem with law enforcement is a really big part of what we do, because there are several online groups who pose as minors online and live-stream themselves confronting abusers, in order to shame the person.

While I am not denigrating those groups, they have made law enforcement suspicious of us, because often those cases end up not being prosecutable. For me, it was really important to develop relationships with law enforcement and let them know exactly how we work.

In order to do this type of prevention work, it’s essential we understand the requirements for prosecution in each different state, and make sure that we’re providing totally sufficient evidence. Ensuring we’re seen as an asset and not a liability was really important to me.

Creating a decoy child to catch abusers

While forming these personas, we’re trying to create a kid out of thin air. A real child has an in-depth background. They have a middle name, zodiac sign, a best friend, hobbies, uncles, aunts, and food allergies, so we have to think about all of those things.

It’s imperative to memorize each of our decoys’ personas because we can’t necessarily reference files in real time.

A lot of time goes into creating their social media profiles and making them realistic—an account on Facebook with no followers or friends or an account on Twitter with no tweets isn’t going to look convincing.

In terms of images, we use a lot of digital editing, but a lot of it has to do with context. For example, we’re dressing up the rooms we’re in to look like teen bedrooms and wearing teenage clothes.

Recently, we have brought on actors in their early 20s who look a lot younger, and a lot of it is done with makeup and lighting, but I believe building a believable story is more important than what someone’s face looks like.

‘Like flies to honey’: Adults contacting minors

Unfortunately, we never have to reach out to ACMs, because a minor online attracts them like flies to honey. The age of these men ranges, all the way up to 65 years old, and on average one decoy receives anywhere between 30 to 40 new ACMs per day.

While that number varies depending on how many platforms that persona is on, in any given week our team might be communicating with 300 different people.

Whenever an ACM contacts one of our personas, we immediately tell them we’re a minor. How the conversation progresses varies each time, but often it becomes sexual immediately, within minutes of saying hello. And sometimes they send photos of their genitalia as a greeting.

Many people believe grooming to be a long, drawn-out process that takes place over months, but it can happen in minutes.

A lot of the time, these men are opening their phones because they want immediate gratification. Some don’t want to meet in person; they just want to send their genitalia to someone they believe is a kid, or try to receive photos from a child.

Once they’ve done that, there have been many times they block our decoy because that was all they felt they had use for.

Others, particularly the more sophisticated ACMs, do want a longer-term relationship and do a lot of trust-building. They groom the child so they know they won’t tell anybody. Often they use what we call the White Knight tactic.

They say: “The internet is a dangerous place, but you can trust me, I’m here for you.” Or: “You don’t want to lose your virginity to somebody who’s mean, unkind or rough. I really should be the one to do that for you.”

They pretend to protect the child and be there for them, when in reality they are grooming our decoy.

Roo Powell
Roo and her team launch teen decoys online, communicate with adults contacting minors, find their true identities, and collaborate with law enforcement to have them held accountable.

Some ACMs will initially pretend not to be interested in the decoy sexually. Instead, they will act as a father figure in their life—so many of our ACMs want to be called “daddy”. They claim to be a stable figure in their life, a friend who is taking care of them and not doing anything wrong.

They start with seemingly innocuous steps which are really hard for a kid to decipher, like telling them to text them before bed and when they wake up. Then they move a little further and say: “Hey take a picture of what you’re eating for lunch.”

The child says yes, and that progresses to: “Okay how about the outfit you’re wearing today.” They get the child used to saying yes to all of their requests, which seem benign, so when they ask for something really damaging, they still feel like they have to say yes.

What is illegal varies by state based on interpretation of the law, and occasionally ACMs ask for something very creepy, and even abusive, but not illegal. And sometimes, we acquiesce to those requests.

For example, sending an ACM a photograph he requested of my feet. We know doing that is leading us to get an identity, and I would much rather this abusive person receive images of my body than that of an actual child.

For the most part, these people are not giving their first name and surname online, and we don’t necessarily push to identify them unless a law has been broken.

When it has, we determine who they are in a variety of ways, from using information and images they’ve provided to determine where they live, to finding other photos of them on the internet.

Once we identify them, we contact the law enforcement department we’re working with and say: “We’ve identified this person, he lives in this county.” Depending on whether it’s their jurisdiction or not, they handle it or call someone else to bring local law enforcement in.

It’s hard to quantify how many arrests have been made based on the evidence we’ve turned over — a lot of our evidence is used as leads and sent to other departments in other jurisdictions. However, there are plenty of cases where we’re there to see them through to an arrest, and I have not yet had an arrest where the case was thrown out.

I have occasionally been subpoenaed to testify and know of many cases that have been adjudicated; most of the time they result in a plea deal.

Constant adrenaline

Taking part in this kind of prevention work can be gratifying, but is still very emotionally taxing. I have dealt with the added pressure of bringing other people on to act as this teenager—it almost feels like inviting them to participate in trauma.

Then there’s the adrenaline rush of a takedown, and being constantly worried about logistics. Anytime we do this, everything seems heightened for the entire period. It’s constant adrenaline spikes and crashes.

I have three wonderful daughters, and of course I can’t help but relate when the team is posing as kids the same age as them. There have been times I’ve been sitting in our decoy’s bedroom and I say: “No, we can’t use that blanket because my daughter has that blanket and I can’t even think about that right now.”

I make little rules for myself in order to separate myself from my work. Having the decoys boxed away from my life at home really helps—I know that when I am going to the SOSA office I’m doing SOSA work, and when I’m at home, I’m at home.

I do not keep photos of my kids at the office. The only person I am there is, the head of this nonprofit. When I close the door and come home, then I’m just mom, not anything else.

Stop blaming victims

One thing I would implore every adult to do, in order to improve the safety of children online, is to stop victim blaming. I often hear people say: “Why are these kids even talking to these adults? Why are they entertaining these conversations? Why are they posting photos from the beach on their Instagram accounts?”

That kind of thinking is garbage. And none of it holds water. When you’re a kid, your job is to figure things out and to explore. I feel the blame is on us for not providing them with a safe environment to do that.

There is so much secret shame and sadness these children can’t express because they’re afraid that someone’s going to blame them. I often hear parents say to their kids: “How could you be so stupid?” Your kid’s not stupid, your kid was faced with a really manipulative, coercive criminal.

I feel that victim blaming keeps perpetrators safe and it stops victims from getting the help that they need.

Roo Powell
SOSA creates social media profiles for all their personas using digital editing, lighting and make-up.

I believe the legal age of consent should be raised to 18 across the United States. In the U.S. it’s the arbitrary age people can buy cigarettes, vote, and serve in the military, so I feel it should be the same age that somebody can consent to sexual contact with a 65-year-old.

On top of that, I suggest that parents have regular conversations with their kids about online safety. My daughters and I talk about everything very openly, including online safety.

As my kids get older, I want to give them more privacy and let them be more independent, but to have a relationship with them that if something happens online, they come to me for help knowing that I am not going to blame them.

All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

As told to Newsweek’s My Turn associate editor, Monica Greep.

Roo Powell is the founder of nonprofit SOSA — Safe from Online Sex Abuse. Her series UNDERCOVER UNDERAGE airs Mondays at 9/8c on ID and discovery+.

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