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Video: Rossen Reports: Do missing child posters work?

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TODAY
updated 6/7/2012 7:41:19 AM ET 2012-06-07T11:41:19

We've all seen the tragic stories, but would you call the police if you spotted that missing kid? TODAY National Investigative Correspondent Jeff Rossen conducted an eye-opening experiment.

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We see it all the time: A young child disappears, and the search is on. Everyone bands together, blanketing the area with missing child posters. Police say it's a critical tool, but think about it: Do you really pay attention to them? Our hidden-camera experiment may change the way you see everything.

Have an idea for Rossen Reports? Email us by clicking here!

A little girl has vanished — Alyssa McAdams, only 10 years old, blonde hair, blue eyes — and the missing child posters are up in a small New York City suburb, and inside a local bakery. But would you notice her if she was standing right next to you? What if a man was berating her, right in front of you?

Desperate parents rely on "missing" posters to get their children home. Police say those posters can save kids' lives — but only if the public pays attention.

We set up an experiment in Mamaroneck, N.Y. Working with police, we printed fake "missing" posters and hung them everywhere from trees to lampposts, even inside Boiano Bakery, a local hot spot we wired with hidden cameras. We even put a camera inside the poster, right at the register.

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Here's the good news: Alyssa wasn't really missing. She's an actress who was working with us. We had her walk into the bakery with a strange man holding her by the arm. He was working with us too: Bill Stanton, a security expert. We watched from a control room downstairs with Alyssa's mother and a local police detective, Sandra DiRuzza of the Mamaroneck Police, to see how people would react.

‘It was unsettling’
One woman was alarmed at the poster, asking the cashier about it several times. Then Alyssa walked in. The woman immediately looked over at her and seemed to recognize Alyssa as the missing girl. But even after that, we watched as she moved her own young daughter away and left the store without saying a word.

The scenario brought Alyssa's mom to tears. It was time to reveal our experiment. "Did you look at the little girl and make the connection?" we asked the young mother after identifying ourselves.

"I did," the woman said. "I saw that she resembled the picture. It was unsettling."

TODAY
Many people saw the poster identifying Alyssa as missing throughout a day of filming, but only three contacted police.

"But then you didn't do anything about it?"

"Yeah, because I wasn't sure ... I didn't want to insult the gentleman if it wasn't the girl. I didn't want to scare the girl if it wasn't her."

Sandra DiRuzza told us: "We would rather come out and investigate it and have it be nothing versus miss an opportunity to save a child."

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And there were some encouraging moments during our experiment. One man saw the poster, saw Alyssa, and didn't waste any time calling police. "There seems to be a missing child in there, which is all over the place on the little flyers," he told a 911 dispatcher.

‘It was the wrong thing’
But most didn't call the cops. For example, our "missing" poster clearly got the attention of one woman out with her family, buying Italian ices. She did a double take when she saw Alyssa sitting alone. She did tell the clerk, but the clerk was in on our experiment and played dumb.

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Meanwhile, Bill Stanton and Alyssa walked right by her, leaving the store. It was her last chance to stop them, but in the end she didn't, and left with her family.

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Again it was time to reveal ourselves. "It looked like you made the connection that that girl was the same girl in the poster," we said. "And then you left the store?"

"I did," the woman said, choking up. "I kind of asked somebody if they confirmed my feeling and they ignored me, so I guess I went on. It was the wrong thing."

At least she noticed the poster. In our experiment, most seemed to miss it entirely, ordering pastries, going about their lives, even with our missing girl just an arm's reach away.

Video: Rossen Reports: Do missing child posters work? (on this page)

We showed our results to John Walsh. His own son Adam was abducted and murdered more than 30 years ago; now John is a leading crusader for missing children.

"Your investigation makes me sad and it makes mad and it makes me angry," Walsh said. "We need to pay attention, stop for a second, look at that child and thank God it's not your child."

Read more investigative journalism from Rossen Reports

We ran the scenario 16 times, over an entire day. In the end, only three people contacted police. "That's my child, and if she was really missing ... nobody wants to help," Alyssa's mother said. "It's disturbing on many levels."

We also shared our results with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. They said thousands of kids have been saved because somebody noticed the missing child posters, proving how important those posters are. But, they said, our experiment shows people need to pay attention — it's as simple as that — to bring more kids home.

Have an idea for a future edition of Rossen Reports? We want to hear from you! To send us your ideas, click here.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

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