The AccessData team sat down recently with Dennis Ozment, the executive director of 4theONE, a non-profit organization dedicated to finding and rescuing children who are missing, exploited or trafficked. 4theONE is an all-volunteer organization and is able to help rescue more children with the assistance of additional private investigators and digital forensics professionals. To learn more about 4theONE or to volunteer your services to the organization, please go to www.4theone.org.
AD: Dennis, can you tell us a little bit about 4theONE?
Ozment: Our organization, 4theONE, is one of many non-profits that are trying to find teenagers who have been reported as runaways, missing or suspected trafficking victims. We are a 100% volunteer organization, including an all-volunteer team of investigators who work in parallel with local law enforcement agencies and the families of these missing children to try to find the kids as quickly as possible.
AD: Why did 4theONE want to partner with AccessData?
Ozment: We conduct a vast amount of online research and perform interviews to try to determine with whom the child was communicating, their last known whereabouts and follow other investigative leads to try to determine the child’s possible location. It can be very difficult and time-consuming for a volunteer investigator to manually comb through that data, but our organization has recently been given a significant boost with the adoption of AccessData’s Forensic Toolkit® (FTK®), a leading digital forensics software product.
AD: I understand this technology came in very handy in a recent case?
Ozment: Yes. Last month, FTK played a crucial role in our around-the-clock efforts to find and rescue a missing teenage girl in Texas, as well as helping police officers arrest the man she was with.
AD: Can you share some of the facts related to the case?
Ozment: One day in November, a 16-year-old girl went missing from her home in a small rural town. The next day, 4theONE made contact with the family and started our case intake process. During this initial conversation, the missing teen’s mother said her daughter often used two family computers — a laptop and a desktop. She also mentioned a couple of online platforms the girl used frequently to “chat” with people. I picked up the computers from the family home right away and began imaging the hard drives, using the FTK Imager tool provided by AccessData.
AD: Were you able to surface any clues from that data?
Ozment: I initially used another forensic software tool that I had used in the past to search for social media artifacts and chat history related to the platforms the girl’s mother had mentioned. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful in those efforts over a 24-hour period, so I switched to the FTK software product provided to us by AccessData. Meanwhile, the girl was still missing and there was no information regarding her whereabouts. Late on the evening of the next day, I was able to search indexed/carved data related to the missing teen’s social media communications and uncovered the first evidence of a significant online chat. Working into the early hours of the morning, I used FTK to follow the timeline of activity and piece together evidence showing a full online chat conversation between the missing girl and a male. Ominously, this conversation ended a short time prior to her going missing.
AD: What steps did you take next to try to determine her whereabouts?
Ozment: I used FTK to search the computer for contact information or other identifying information for the male based on his chat ID. This search yielded very little additional information, but a second chat conversation was found that referred to the male living in a city that was roughly three hours away from the girl’s house. Taking the information I found on the computer, our team of volunteers began investigating the male and searching for his true identity … and within one hour, we had positively identified the male and his last known address.
AD: Tell us as much as you can about your interactions with law enforcement professionals in the next crucial hours of this investigation.
Ozment: We immediately put together a full report — including the chat conversation from the computer that was surfaced by FTK — and reached out to the police detective who was working the case. The detective and I discussed what our team had found, I sent him the report and he contacted a law enforcement agency in the city where the suspect lived. A couple hours later, those local police officers found the girl at the suspect’s home, rescued her and arrested the male. The missing teen is now safely back at home with her parents and the suspect is facing five felony charges.
AD: That is great news. How common is a frightening case like this one?
Ozment: Every 40 seconds, a child goes missing somewhere in the United States, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. The longer a child is missing, the more vulnerable they are to becoming a victim of child sex trafficking and other forms of human trafficking. Law enforcement agencies at every level — national, state and local — do an excellent job of trying to locate missing children and, where appropriate, bringing their kidnappers or traffickers to justice. However, local police departments must prioritize criminal cases, so they focus their attention on abductions. As a result, they often lack the technology, resources and staffing to aggressively search for every single runaway child. Since 2015, we have helped find more than 100 children who were missing; sadly, roughly half of those kids were victims of trafficking or exploitation.
AD: Can you shine some light on the importance of forensics software to the work you do?
Ozment: In the process of our investigative work, it’s very common for one of our volunteers to find small traces of electronic evidence in a social media posting or perhaps a thumbnail photograph on a digital device. This is why digital forensics software tools are crucial weapons for our volunteers to be able to deploy. We work with families at no cost to them whatsoever, so we rely on the manpower of our volunteers and the generosity of our donors. In this spirit, we’re very grateful to AccessData, which has agreed to provide 4theONE with a free FTK license and is providing free online training to our volunteers so that we can equip more digital forensics investigators to help us find more kids.
AD: Any closing thoughts about the value of FTK to your organization?
Ozment: FTK is widely recognized as a powerful computer forensics tool and has a reputation among digital forensic investigators as being the easiest product on the market to use. The software enables professionals to zero in on relevant evidence quickly, conduct faster searches and dramatically increase analysis speed. In the real-life case of the missing teen last month, it was the tool that surfaced the crucial evidence we needed to find her as quickly as possible.