Leveraging Magnet Forensics Software for Human Trafficking Investigations

Author John Pizzuro is a 25-year veteran in law enforcement and has served in several roles, including investigating organized crime and being part of the New Jersey Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.

Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation cases have exponentially increased as smartphones, computers, and tablets have become the number one source of communication and social interaction.

As a career investigator, and a previous Commander of The New Jersey Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force; I have seen the increase of complaints, investigations, and victimization—with an increase of over 500% from five years ago. Our world is comprised of likes, followers, and views and it doesn’t matter if you’re young or old. We live in an online world, which is fraught with pitfalls and unforeseen dangers. 

Human Trafficking isn’t like the movie Taken and rarely looks like a sophisticated organization buying and selling children. It is more exploitative in nature and is mostly comprised of singular predators looking to exploit numerous victims through social media and apps.

The reality is that most cases occur over the use of some type of technology. It is very rare that an investigation today will be devoid of any smartphone or computer use. 

Current Trends in Technology Use That Can Make Victims More Vulnerable

Often, victims rarely see the potential for online danger because they are using these apps and smartphones from the safety of their homes. That is one reason why victims today become so easily manipulated through the grooming of predators. Technology has made children more vulnerable because they have become more dopamine-dependent and are unable to see predators for who they are. Predators repeat the victim’s language on chat platforms and the mimicking of the victim’s language creates a false sense of rapport. The fleeting validation makes children vulnerable and susceptible to victimization, with most of this happening through online platforms. 

Today, popularity has to do with your online platform use. On a recent walk on the boardwalk on Jersey Shore, I counted 10 teens making TikTok videos and 67 others on their phone, completely oblivious to the dangers of the content that they were creating, sharing or who they share it with.

As app use increases and more apps come online, the dangers subsequently increase—especially since there is no moderation within chat rooms or age and identity verification done by the app companies. Additionally, “end-to-end encryption” thwarts the ability for others to see the conversations from the mobile platform to a mobile platform, thus making the examination of the device that much more vital. Thankfully, Magnet Forensics has made it their mission to “Protect the Innocent.”

The Challenges in Investigating Human Trafficking

As an investigator, you have to understand the technology and find evidence where it is located. Today, that evidence for human traffickers is located on computers, phones, and tablets. Magnet AXIOM and Magnet OUTRIDER provide investigators with the ability to triage, investigate and retrieve the evidence to protect those victims of exploitation and trafficking.

So how does Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation start?

It starts with online grooming and communication on one of the various apps or platforms. For example, as a predator, I might meet someone on TikTok and start a conversation with them, and then move them to an app such as Wikr, Kik, or Skout. These apps are “end to end encrypted” and have no other mechanism to be seen unless you have one of the devices.

Grooming can also occur on a gaming platform such as Xbox or PlayStation. Most apps have some sort of chat component which allows for communication between the trafficker and victim. Most apps will allow the sending and receiving of pictures, videos, and texts. There are other apps that will allow the transfer of NFT’s and Cryptocurrency or other forms of digital currency. All this digital evidence is vital for Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation Investigators.

In my experience, there are often multiple victims per suspect. At some point, fantasy and reality intersect and predators and traffickers will become hands-on offenders.

Parsing apps and digital evidence aren’t just to find evidence of a perpetrator, it is to locate, and find victims to protect them. Whether it is obtaining a clear organized picture of chats with screen names and timelines, examining the background of photos and EXIF data, geolocations, financial purchases such as hotel rooms, restaurants, and food purchases, it is the evidence that is needed to support your investigation when it comes to human trafficking and child exploitation.

How Understanding an Online Life Can Help in Your Investigation

Whether I was investigating the mafia, terrorism, corruption, or homicides, understanding a suspect or a victim was vital in developing evidence to solve your investigation.

To solve cases today, you have to understand someone’s online life, and to do this you need investigative software that analyzes a person’s entire online life such as AXIOM. Phones and computers are singularly the best pieces of evidence in any investigation especially when it comes to human trafficking and child exploitation.

I have been involved in numerous child exploitation and human trafficking operations where the suspects were part of several Darknet communities. In these Darknet communities, predators talk openly about how not to get caught and how not to leave a digital footprint. They talk about how to be more efficient in finding and exploiting victims. They talk about the best apps to use to facilitate their criminal behavior.

Ultimately, their whole manner and method of trafficking and exploitation were through their smartphones, gaming systems, and computers. Every one of these suspects had multiple victims, were on multiple apps, and left a digital footprint of their criminal activity. AXIOM helped me find the evidence to prosecute these predators, identify multiple victims, locate additional suspects, and most importantly, gave me insight into their manners and methods.

Tools That Can Help in Your Investigations

Leveraging investigative software and using it to solve human trafficking and child exploitation cases today is a must:

  • OUTRIDER helps an investigator triage where the digital evidence might be allowing you to be more efficient
  • AXIOM will provide you with the ability to find human trafficking and child exploitation evidence
  • ATLAS will help you manage your cases and investigations, as well as aid with digital evidence management and chain of custody matters
  • REVIEW will help prosecutors prosecute while putting a picture of your digital evidence investigations that a jury could understand.

The reality is understanding and investigating human traffickers—and protecting victims— calls for a technological solution. Magnet Forensics have made it their mission to provide solutions which will help catch predators and protect the innocent.

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Leveraging Magnet Forensics Software for Human Trafficking Investigations