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Bitcoin Forensics | Investigating Cryptocurrency Crimes Online's coming...

You knew this was coming.  A course in cryptocurrency investigations.  There is no faster and comprehensive method to learn cryptocurrency investigations than to take a class in it and study a book about it.   As the book is being written, the course is being developed alongside the book as a companion to the book.  If you have not come across cryptocurrency in your investigations yet, I promise you that you will soon enough.  When it does show up, and you are not prepared, your case is not going to get the full attention needed if you are not already prepared.

"Bitcoin" has been in the news more and more lately.  You probably have already heard of Bitcoin, but may not actually own any, nor understand how it works.  The intention of both the book and course is to give you the 'need to know' information of what it is and also the 'must know' information of how to investigate cryptocurrency.  Cryptocurrency is much more than just Bitcoin.  Way way much more.  The entire blockchain universe has begun to change the way data and records (and currency!) are being created and maintained.   In your lifetime, there will not be an investigation where some aspect of the blockchain and cryptocurrency is not a part, whether it be a tangent to your case or instrumental to it.  Criminal and civil investigations both.  Crimes from petty theft to murder.  You will see aspects of the blockchain in most everything.

Bitcoin Forensics | Investigating Cryptocurrency Crimes

But don't worry.  This book, the first book to be conceived and to be published on this subject, is covering all of it.  And if you want to see demonstrations, follow along with exercises, and actually trace transactions online in real-time, this course that will compliment the book is for you.

You may be able to tell that I am really excited about this book and course.  I am actually excited about the changes to investigations as we know it today due to the blockchain.  You cannot ignore the future in your cases and how this technology is changing everything.  Money laundering is a whole new world with cryptocurrency.  From small time street dealers to international drug trafficking organizations, the time is not only coming near, but is already here.  If you have read any of my previous investigative books, you know that I cover not only the things you can only do with search warrants, but also the things that you can do without any court order.  This applies to both civil and criminal cases, as many times you can get exactly what you need in a timely fashion when you know exactly where to look and what to look for, when it is publicly available.  That is the intention of both this book and course.  Deep dive into the operating system to find the crypto artifacts and hop online to trace the transactions from their origin to destinations. 


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Thinking of Writing a #DF/IR Book? Here’s a tip that may or may not work out for you.

I am very open on my opinions about writing books, specifically DF/IR books.  I encourage anyone who is thinking about writing a DF/IR book to write away and start right away!  The longer you wait, the more likely someone else will write the book you wanted to write.

Over the years, I have been asked questions about writing and I posted a fairly detailed blog post with my opinions.  Take into account that I am no JK Rowling, nor do I have dozens of books in print, and like anyone, my opinions are my own.

So, what is the writing tip that may or may not work out for you?

The tip is to decide whether you want to tell the world about the book you started or keep the project to yourself.  Here is my experience on this, with an example for both.

2010, Experience #1: 

Some years ago, I wrote two ‘papers’ on virtual machines and forensics.  I decided to write a book on virtualization forensics and mapped out a table of contents, and started the first chapter.  Before I sent out a proposal to publishers, I came across a post on by Diane Barrett in which she posted that she was writing a book on the same topic that I was (Virtualization and Forensics).   Totally coincidental and an obvious case of independent-invention (we both had the same idea, independently).  So…what did I do? 

I chose to not write “my” book.  Why write what someone else already publicly announced? That's be like making a Wonder Woman movie after hearing that someone else is already making a Wonder Woman movie.

2017, Experience #2:

My fourth and current book is titled Bitcoin Forensics: Investigating Cryptocurrency Crimes.  I did my due diligence in researching to see if any other book existed (it did not) and if anyone else was working on the same topic (no one that I could find online).  To make sure I wasn’t writing something that someone else was writing, I blogged it, tweeted it, and posted to online forums.  I even reached out to anyone who would be interested in contributing to the book and am fortunate to have some fantastic volunteer contributors, along with a super co-author.  So, what happened?

Well…one of the volunteer contributors who agreed to help with the book quit, then without a peep, proposed the same book to a publisher, got a book contract, and the book immediately went to pre-sale on Amazon.  Interesting enough, he wasn’t planning to write the book in the first place until after volunteering to help with this book.


That’s right.  It happened.….at least he changed the title from "Bitcoin Forensics: Investigating Cryptocurrency Crimes" to "Cryptocurrency Forensics"....   

So, this is a tip for future writers that could be more like a warning if it doesn’t work.   If you plan on writing a DF/IR book, you’ll have to decide to either keep it a secret or tell the world.  Keep it a secret and maybe no one else is writing the same thing.  That’s a big chance to take because I can tell you, everyone is thinking about the same book to write that you are.  Not the best thing to have two closely identical books come out at the same time to the same (fairly small) audience.  

Or, you can publicly announce your book and probably someone else won’t intentionally take your idea and write it.  However, worst case, someone could offer to to help with your book, then run off and sneak in a book contract with another publisher...good grief.

I prefer telling everyone.  Why hide what you are working on?  Why hide the research you discovered?  I believe in sharing to help push us all forward, even if just an inch forward.  This is the way I have seen others do it and actually what I prefer.  I would regret having written an entire book, or even half a book, only to find that someone else was writing the same thing, which could have been avoided by simply announcing my intentions.  Then again, this happens....

And yes, I am still writing this book.  The team of contributors, tech editor, and co-author is simply awesome.

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DF/IR Case Studies

I've made three case studies so far and will have a fourth up this week.  From the feedback I've asked in a short survey about the case study series, here are the results:

  • The case studies are beneficial, useful, and job relevant.
  • The presentation format works (weekly to bi-weekly case studies).
  • Length is appropriate (between 30 minutes to 1 hour).
  • Printed certificates of completion are important to 90% of the respondents. 

With that, I'll keep going and adding one or two cases a week, more if I find relevant cases to recent news.  Personally, I have always benefited from case studies.  I get reminders of how investigations are done, tips on how to do them better, and sometimes learn things that I should never do in cases that go sideways.  I can tell you that after being assigned to over 100 criminal cases a year for 10 years, you can never learn enough to improve.  Some things you can learn may be small but have a huge impact on your case. 

In Case Studies #3, the case was solved in 6 months.  This was an international investigation spanning several countries and multiple states in the USA, with anonymity services used by the suspect.  I know that the investigators involved in the case used everything at their disposal to figure it out and all it took was a few little things to crack it open.  This is what case studies is all about.

I mentioned at the start of the Case Study series that I would have a short-run promo occasionally to entice more DFIRrs to start a habit of reviewing cases and continually be in some sort of training.  This time, the promo includes the Placing the Suspect Behind the Keyboard Course.  The Placing the Suspect Behind the Keyboard Course is 13-hours of the tactics, methods, and procedures to do the things that are being done in cyber cases today, in both the criminal investigation world and the private security world.  I'm giving it FREE with the Case Study series, but I'm limiting registrations to only 100 or Friday Nov 17, whichever comes first.

If you didn't need another reason for these courses, keep in mind that you should be doing case studies anyway, but when you do them by yourself, the only documentation you will have is that which you jot down on a piece of paper.  I'm keeping track of the hours you spend when you complete the each course and case study, and you can print it out for your records.  Take advantage of professional development when you can get it because you should constantly be improving your skills by doing something everyday: reading, courses, coding, practicing, teaching, something/anything. 

Register here to get the promo price of $75 for both the Case Studies Series and Placing the Suspect Behind the Keyboard course (promo code "cs-psbk"): 


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The last thing we want in DF/IR is the first thing we need in DF/IR (aka: regulations...)

    As teenagers, we never liked rules growing up. Curfews. Chores. Homework.  But we know now that the rules were good for us.   It seems like nothing has changed for those of us in the DF/IR field.  We don’t particularly want to be regulated simply because, like when we were teenagers, we know what is best for us. 

    The DF/IR field, as it stands today, is practically the Wild Wild West.  We have few regulations outside of obtaining a business license. In some states, we might need a PI license, but that is about the most regulated we get today.  It’s freewheeling at the moment without any government intervention. What a great time to be in DF/IR!

  •  Licensing requirements? Nope.
  • Training requirements? Nope.
  • Education requirements? Nope.
  • Certification requirements? Nope.
  • Experience requirements? Nope.
  • Testing requirements? Nope.
  • Annual update requirements? Nope.

    To state the point quickly, I foresee this Wild Wild West coming to a screeching halt, where we will all be (willfully) blindsided, and potentially have our careers and businesses put on hiatus until we comply with mandated regulations that will take months, if not years for each of us to comply.  I expect that some currently working in DF/IR may not be able to comply!

    Let me get to the solution before getting into the issues.  Simply copy and modify what is being done in other professions to fit the DF/IR profession, and give our ideas to the respective government regulatory agencies to implement.  In this manner, everyone can keep doing what they are doing, begin to comply with the regulations, be grandfathered in where appropriate, and have reasonable standards created by those who know best (that’s you by the way).  Pick a profession, any profession, and get started.  The medical field, accounting field, anything.  Even hair stylists are regulated with training and education standards.  Pick several and meld them together to fit DF/IR.

Brett’s Opinion on a few things


I usually get on a soap box and rant against certifications, but I’ll make it shorter this time.  I’m not against certifications, and I believe that having a sheet of paper of classroom training completion is worthwhile.   Having that sheet of paper shows:

  •  I attended ‘x’ number of hours on "x" date and time
  • I was exposed to ‘x’ topics in those hours
  • I was taught by ‘x’ (person or organization)
  • I passed an exam (if one was given)



    Licensing is inconvenient to maintain, just ask any doctor if you are curious.  But, licensing is important to prevent unqualified people from practicing a service that can have serious consequences.   We certainly trust our doctors, but part of that trust is based on a license from the state, which is based on a successful internship, which is based on the degree granted by a university, which is based on the successful passages of a specific curriculum, and so forth. 

    In the DF/IR world, all we need to do is attend a 3-day FTK class and buy a dongle.  No, all we need is just buy the dongle.  Wait a sec, actually forget the dongle, we can just download some free forensic software and get started…

    We need licensing, and a standardized process to meet those licensing requirements.  Whatever that may end up becoming is currently up to the DFIR community, but will eventually be mandated by someone else if we sit idly by.  If you are reading this and doing DF/IR work, I would imagine that grandfather clauses will be inserted in every requirement, otherwise, the entire DF/IR field will grind to a halt.  Most of those working today in the DF/IR field can probably teach DF/IR at a post-graduate level, yet not personally hold a post-graduate degree (or any degree in any IT related field)

    I can foresee licensing based on a healthcare provider licensing model.  Each different job (doctor, nurse, etc…) has its basic foundational requirements.  Additional specializations have additional requirements (heart surgeon, registered nurse, etc…).  So that,

  • DF/IR Licensed Professional (much like a family doctor in general practice)
  • DF Licensed Specialist (operating system specialization, device type specialization, etc…)
  • IR Licensed Specialist (penetration specialization, intrusion specialization, etc…)
  • And so forth.

    Imagine looking for an employee and you can instantly see what they should know based on a standardized licensing model.  Today, you may be trying to weed out the IR applicants for a DF job you have, and that is not as easy to do when you have to go line-by-line to sort it out what the applicant’s skills are.  When looking at other professions, I usually point to one example of becoming a hair stylist.  I'm not knocking hair stylists, but the majority of us getting hair cuts don't even know the licensing requirements involved.  In Washington State, it's a lot of requirements to just cut hair...


    Think about what it takes to cut hair the next time you argue against any licensing requirements for DF/IR work...because we don't have anything that compares.  Another benefit of licensing is getting rid of the bad apples.  An example of how this is done in the police world (at least in WA state), is the Peace Officer Certification.   If the Peace Officer Certification is revoked, then that police officer will not be able to work anywhere in the state.  The world of lawyers is similar in they can be disbarred from practicing law.  How nice would it be to de-certify a DF/IR person who falsified evidence or doesn’t meet any minimum standards?  Everyone would benefit.

 <on soapbox>

    I want to rant a bit on certifications, only because I am asked about ‘which certs should I get’ all the time.  I am not anti-certification, but I have strong feelings about some of the certifications and about how certifications are looked at by students, employers, courts, and vendors.

     I believe certifications are important to more easily show in court that you at least completed training in a certain subject especially if you are using DF/IR skills in (1) helping put someone in or keep out of jail, or (2) helping someone keep or lose their job.  It doesn’t mean you know what you are doing, just that you had training in the subject.  Otherwise, it looks like you were winging it.  **exceptions exist, I know, but bear with me as speaking generally**.

    Here are some of issues I have personally seen in courses offering certifications:

  • ·         Students sleeping in class
  • ·         Students showing up late and leaving early due to “work”
  • ·         2-hour lunches on some rarer occasions
  • ·         20-minute breaks on many occasions
  • ·         Course over by lunchtime on the last day
  • ·         Everyone passes the test with multiple attempts
  • ·         Everyone getting a certificate even if they failed the test or didn’t attend the entire course

     Here are some of the issues I have personally seen about certification perceptions:

  • ·         Only “x” certified DF/IR employees know how to use “x” software
  • ·         You must have “x” certification to apply for this job
  • ·         If you self-studied and mastered “x”, you aren’t as good as an “x” certified applicant
  • ·         The “x” certification is better than the “y” certification
  • ·         The “x” certification is more expensive because it is the best certification

    I have seen certification-junkies, where almost like an obsessive collector, the more acronyms they collect, the better they feel.  What about the Challenge Coins!  Gotta have them!  Vendors have got to love these types.  It's like the Pokemon or Furby craze.  Employers are also at a loss because the only certifications they care about are the ones that are most hyped by a vendor that gives out the most cherished acryomn. 

    As for me, if I were ever a hiring manager again, rather than look at an applicant and see that box for “x” certification exists, I’d rather make sure that the certification was (1) relevant to the job, and (2) the applicant knows the material that the certificate says.  Otherwise, I look at certs as simply a document showing the number of hours that a person completed for professional development. No more. No less.

    Speaking of number of hours in courses, I am a stickler on actual numbers.  Every statement that I have ever made of the number of classroom hours I have completed, I have cut the documented number down by at least 25%.  On paper, I may have a certain number of hours in print, but in depositions, testimony, resumes, CVs, and informal conversations, I state the lower number.  Why? Because I see classroom hours as not including the breaks or the early-outs on Friday morning.   Or when the instructor has to cut the class short to make a flight.

    I have taken courses where a 40-hour course turns out to be 60 (like SWAT training….), but I have never seen that happen in the DF/IR training world.  If you don’t believe that a 40-hour course classroom time is closer to 30 hours, crank up Excel and put in the number to your last course.  Be honest in the numbers and you will be surprised.  And be sure to put in the extra-long breaks, the days that the class started late and ended early.  And the days that the class stalled because of this-reason or that-reason.  Add the time you stepped out for a phone call (if you ever did such a terrible thing!).



     The next time you testify and are asked about your classroom (formal) hours of training, think about the actual numbers before you answer.   Lunch time is not typically going to be considered DF/IR learning time.

 <off soapbox>

    I see the future where the road to working DF/IR will be as easy to figure out as it is today if you want to be a doctor or lawyer or house builder.  Follow the path to licensing and you will be good to go.  Salaries will be much higher, the profession will advance faster than ever, and employers/clients will have an easier time of finding exactly who they need.

    The requirements and qualifications? That’s up to us to figure out, and figure out fast.  Otherwise, I can also see government making the requirements so burdensome that it will push out those who are competent and prevent those with great potential from coming in.  That is totally opposite of what we want to happen.

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Sharing is caring

One thing about the DFIR blogs is that they tend to bounce off each other.   This is a good thing because tidbits of gold nuggets can be expanded upon with different perspectives and experiences.  Never in human history have we ever been able to instantly connect world-wide to increase our knowledge base, especially in the technology field (specifically in the DFIR field!).

With that, to expand on Harlan Carvey’s never-ending quest to push ourselves to share, I want to credit those who do share as I constantly benefit personally and professionally from the work of others. For those who do not yet share, consider the benefits you will have by putting yourself out there, even just a little.  We are all smarter only because we communicate with each other.

I have seen polar opposites of how sharing knowledge works and how hoarding knowledge does not.  As I was a Marine at 17 years old, I had an unfair advantage of the benefits of sharing.  I never heard the actual word “sharing” in the Marines, but that is what we did.  We shared knowledge and experience.  From day one in the Fleet, I was shown the way to do ‘things’.   I was given the opportunity to try, fail, try, fail, try, fail, try, succeed.  No one ever gave up on me, nor wanted me to fail.  When my turn came to lead, I did the same to the boots that came in.  I showed them the way and made sure they were competent.  Allowing the failure of a Marine was not an option.  I naively believed that was the normal way of doing business everywhere, but I was wrong.    

Enter the private sector….

I have had both similar experiences in the private sector and a completely opposite experience.  The experiences that I had that were opposite in that I never expected professionals to hoard knowledge from their peers.  Co-workers, peers, and supervisors seemed to be on warpaths to make sure the newbies failed.  Those who did not fail were allowed to stay.  Those who failed were booted out the door.  Trial-by-fire was the method of training new employees.  I have even seen the sabotage of new employees in hopes to flunk them out. 

  • When the team shares, teaches, encourages, and supports each other, the team grows and bonds together.  This team can tackle anything that comes up, without hesitation, and without worry of being left to drown by an individual in their team. Expect failures, but also expect the failures to be turned around into successes.
  • When you have individuals who are only looking out for #1, your team isn’t a team.  It is a group of individuals, each with a different agenda.  Expect failures.  Don't expect success.

Having been in both types of situations, I can say without hesitation that when people share knowledge, everyone grows and benefits including the person who is sharing.  In the world of DFIR blogging, whether you are in a one-person company or working for a Fortune 50 organization, when you share your knowledge, you benefit more than you know.  If you are being paid as a leader in your organization, under whichever term (manager, supervisor, TL, etc...), your mission is to give every opportunity to grow your team.  Some tips:

  • Teach, show, do (you are a teacher. teach your members, show them how, let them try. rinse and repeat)
  • Don't give up  (if your member keeps trying, so do you. have patience)
  • Teamwork  (team success, not individual wins, makes for success)
  • Teach your peers and subordinates to succeed individually for the group and the unit will succeed as a team.

How does this apply to a DFIR blog?

Your blog is affects everyone in the field.  It is shared. It is talked about.  It is critiqued. It is criticized. It is praised.  It initiates conversation.  And most importantly, it moves the DFIR field forward.  Whether your blog moves us an inch forward or a light-year into the future, you are a part of it.  To those who don’t believe this, you don’t have to believe it.  We reap what we sow. To everyone else, I’m merely preaching to the choir (and I bet your team rocks).


PS. this applies to any line of work, but when our work is 'in computers', dude, we practically work on the Internet so share your brain :)

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A bundle of case studies and X-Ways Forensics Practitioner's Guide training

************UPDATE 10/29****************

Case studies 2 has been published.  It's the Mr Fuddlesticks case.


Out of the 100+ viewers of the case study I did last week, a bit more than half completed a survey with most of those including comments on the case study in regards to what they want to see.

With that, I decided to try a series of case studies with between 4 to 8 case studies added each month.  The first case study I did was longer than expected at almost an hour, but I plan for each case study to be between 15 to 45 minutes.   If you want an easy and inexpensive way to put training & education hours under your belt, this is good way to go.  Spend time reviewing case studies!

The goal in the case studies is to;

  • show how others do cases
  • show how suspects have been caught
  • show processes, techniques, and methods that suspects used to avoid being caught
  • show processes, techniques, and methods that investigators used to catch suspects
  • give insight on how to work cases with ideas and examples

As time is an issue for everyone, for each case study there is a short quiz to prove you watched the case study.  The quiz is a pre-requisite to receive a printable certificate that states the course title, date, and hours spent.  This is to make the bosses happy and add training time to your CV.  The cert is optional, as is the quiz, in case you just want to review the cases without documentation of your time.  As far as time goes to do a case study, I've broken down the case studies to bare bones important aspects of the cases.  You don't have to read every line of a 30 page affidavit to get the point of the case studies.  I'll spit it out the highlights for you with only the good stuff.  No fluff (as in, no need to read boiler plate after boiler plate).  

I want to make the case study series attractive to you because case studies are important.  If you are a student, there is no other way to watch a real case in the real world other than a case study. If you already work cases, you know that there must be a better way to do what you are doing; so case studies can give you a tip or two to get better at what you do. If you already know everything….that’s another issue (because no one knows everything).  Continually work on improving your skills and you will continually improve your skills.

I have case studies lined up already, but if you have a case you'd like an opinion on for a case study, I'll take a look and maybe add it to the series.  Just send it to me (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.). 

I’ll start the series with a short-run promo price that includes a 3-month access the Case Studies Series and also to the X-Ways Forensics Practitioner’s Guide Online Course for $95.  The regular price for the case series is $125 and the X-Ways Course is $599. 

This is short-run promo at $95 expiring on 11/11/2017 for both the

Case Studies Series and the X-Ways Forensics Practitioner's Guide Online Course.

Register here: 

Case Studies 2A will be posted this weekend.



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Case studies are more helpful than you may think

Today’s presentation on a case study was an example of what I have been doing for many years – figuring out how other people do the job…

I first started doing case studies when I made narc detective years ago.  I can’t lay claim to having had the worst training officer in the narc world, but I would pit him up against anyone as being bottom of the barrel insofar as teaching a young narc how to do his job without getting killed in the process.  That’s when I started doing case studies.  It was a selfish attempt to save me from being killed.

I pulled as many adjudicated narc cases that I could get my hands on from the records room.  I printed off old cases from microfiche, photocopied affidavits and reports, and interviewed the detectives that ran the cases.  My sole purpose in life at the time was trying to find out how to run a case without getting killed while doing my job at the same time of having little in the way of supervised guidance.  By the time I had figured out how to do the job, I had probably put my life at unnecessary risk a dozen or so times, all the while the ‘senior’ narc standing there watching me with a cigarette dangling from his mouth.  Those were not fun days.  Some may call this ‘trial by fire’.  I called it “this sucks”.

But I learned to learn by reading the cases of what others had done.  I analyzed everything in the reports and affidavits, from the decisions made to the tactics used.  By the time I actually went through formal training for narc work, I pretty much had it figured out.  The formal training just solidified what I spent months learning by case studies.  

Fast forward to my digital forensic days.

When I started in digital forensics (“computer” forensics at the time…), my agency had a big donut as the number of forensic examiners in the agency. A big donut = 0.  My agency not only never had a forensic capability, but rarely even sent out a computer for analysis.  I think we had one forensic exam completed by a private examiner…once.  At the time, I thought I could do magic because whenever I said "computer forensics", administrators would automatically roll their eyes and talk about anything besides computers.

So, I started the first forensic unit.  Guess I how I learned to do the job…  Case studies.  By the way, it worked out fine.  I did cases.  Administration was happy.   Bad guys went to prison.  The unit grew after I left, so there's that.

The technical part of forensics is not difficult.  I believe most anyone can figure out how to pull an artifact from a storage device.  A disk is a disk is a disk.  A file is a file is a file.  But running a case, when every case is different from the last?   We have plenty of software and plenty of sources of information that tells us how to do the technical part, however we lack the documentation on how to run a case.  A solution: Case studies.

I have found a few case studies on YouTube over time, but all that I have found are those doing a case study who never actually ran a case.  Looking at a case from the outside misses a lot of important details and many assumptions have to be made.  I wouldn’t evaluate a pilot if I’ve never flown a plane.  Running a case (much like piloting a plane I would imagine) involves a lot of physical labor, organization, fortune-telling, guessing, planning, interpreting, and managing data, people, and events.  That’s how I look at case studies.  I try to look at the case from the perspective of the investigator (or special agent) in order to understand the decisions made and methods used.  Then I see if I could have done anything different or better.  Then I put what I learned to work and make sure that it does work.  It also doesn't hurt to also know the legal restrictions in running a case.  If you don't know the subtle differences between civil and legal cases, or the legal authority as a law enforcement officer or citizen, you'll be skating on thin ice every day in every case.

This is my intention with making my personal case study notes public.  Take a look at a case through the eyes of the investigator/examiner.  Watch how a case unfolds and how an investigator can take the case from start to finish.  Learn how someone else does the job and draw the best parts of it for your job.  There are few better ways to see how a case is worked other than reading the actual case and how it worked.

Interesting enough, with today’s presentation, a thriller author emailed me with a dozen questions about how computer investigations work and how to incorporate complex details into a work of fiction.  The short answer I gave was that it isn’t easy to get right if you don’t know how it works.  If I were to write a book about a pilot, it would be the worst book ever because I’d get all the details about being a pilot wrong because I have only flown and jumped out of planes, but never piloted one.  For the writers out there, I’d take a look at some case studies to see how it is done in the real world, and then bend it a little for the fictional world.

As to more case studies, I’m hoping to have feedback with a survey I added to today’s case study.  If enough people think it is worthwhile, I’ll make it a series. If not, I’ll still do the case studies, but it’ll be the same way I’ve been doing them for the past 20+ years….quietly by myself…


Side note:

The limited time frame for this initial online case study was done for a reason, and I totally understand many people can't make it within the short registration period.  Some of the reasoning is to limit the number of people, get a gauge on if this will be worthwhile to produce, and make a plan to support a series of case studies.  I also wanted to limit  the number of those I am practically giving away the 13-hour Placing the Suspect Behind the Keyboard course as well. 

The difference between when I do a case study by myself and when I create an hour's worth of video and slidedeck is on a scale of 1:5 in time spent, so with that, let me know if this is something of value for you.

Recent Comments
Brett Shavers
You hit on a few points. Knowing what to look for (the smoking gun) is critical in every analysis. To find the smoking gun, the ... Read More
Monday, 23 October 2017 23:51
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Drop the mic...please.

Well...that didn't work out so well, did it?

I had a serious audio problem with the webinar today, from which I learned to mute attendees for the next time that someone doesn't mute their mic.  My fault on the audio, but on to the positive with the webinar: I'm going to make another (two more) presentations.  At the same time, I'm going to make it more in-depth, with more case studies, in more detail, at the same price of free.  Did I mention that I really feel bad about that audio problem.

Details on the upcoming presentations are at: In brief, I may be starting a series of Case Studies based on recent cases I find or cases of mine that I can talk about openly.  With that, this next presentation is Case Studies I - Placing the Suspect Behind the Keyboard (meaning that there most likely will be a Case Studies II, and a Case Studies III, etc...).  I'll provide case documents as I have them available for self-study into the cases that will be discussed.  My intention is to get you thinking like a detective in your cases, regardless of the type of case or importance of the case.  By important, I don't mean that any case is unimportant, but some cases are critical such as those that involve serious threats of harm to persons.  Every case is important to someone, but in some cases, people can be hurt or have been hurt in certain types of cases.

I am limiting the number of attendees to 50 per session and I'll have a promo each time for something neat.  For this upcoming session, I'm giving a promo of $45 (instead of the $799) to the full, 13-hour Placing the Suspect Behind the Keyboard course.  Next time, who knows what it will be and for what.  BTW, the sessions will not remain online past the dates presented as recordings.  These are one-time training sessions not to be repeated.

FAQ (that I've been asked so far...):

Will you keep recordings online for future reference?

Nope.  Either the presentations will be live or delivered as a recording on the day of release only.  

I missed the session, can you extend the promo for me?

Sorry.  The promotions are extremely short-lived for the few hours of the presentation time only because I'm near the point of making the course free when it goes from $799 to $45 (or so).

I missed the session.  Will it be replayed?

Nope. These will be shown once or twice at the most.

Can you put the videos on YouTube?

No Youtube for me.  I'm not a fan of Youtube 'training'.  The presentations I am giving each include a certificate of training attendance in order to give you documented training hours.  Sometimes you need to keep the mother-ship happy with training records, so I aim to help provide those records.  Also, it doesn't hurt to be able to claim training hours when you produce physical documentation instead of saying that you 'learned it on YouTube'. 

The direct link to the case study series is: 

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If you are a “Self-Proclaimed Hacker” looking for a job in LE…

We are almost fully into the computer-age.   In nearly every aspect of our lives and jobs, computers* in some form or another, are integrated.  This means that if you have the inclination and ability to work with computers, your time has come.  The world is your oyster as the doors are not only open with information security careers, but employers are fighting over you as their next new hire.  This is kinda true with law enforcement, but not so much. 

 <*by “computers”, I mean everything that encompasses technology from writing code to developing the devices>

 Let me give a little personal insight into one small aspect of a future career that is of interest to many: law enforcement.  I’ve never directly hired anyone into law enforcement, although I have participated in the interview process for those wanting to be hired, given my input on specific persons that I’ve known who applied to law enforcement, and I have seen people fired for doing some amazing dumb things as cops (and federal agents).  With that, here is one suggestion on increasing the odds you get hired if you work in information security.

 Be careful if you call yourself a hacker if you are not a criminal hacker.

Without clear context, calling yourself a ‘hacker’ implies calling yourself a ‘criminal’, which will cut you out the hiring process faster than a long-tailed cat running out of a room full of rocking chairs.  The primary mission of hiring in LE is to not hire criminals or anyone with the potential of committing crimes in the future.  Remember…past behavior is the best indicator of future performance and behavior.  Do not think that you will have an opportunity to spend a half hour as to why a hacker may or may not be a criminal.  Thousands of applications are submitted each month and one of the best ways to cut the workload of a background investigator is to dismiss as many applications as possible before doing too much work on them.  The easy ones are first, such as those not meeting the job requirements. Then go the ones with blatant problems (serious drugs, arrests, etc...).  Writing "hacker" on your application is a red flag.

I write this only because fairly recently, I was contacted by a background investigator for my thoughts on a police department hiring someone who is a self-proclaimed hacker on their social media. Having to explain what a hacker is, is not, or could be to someone who is not in the community is not usually productive in less than 10 minutes, especially if they are looking for an easy out to go on to the next application.

My opinion is that many times, we may call ourselves “hackers” but for all practical purposes, are actually “counter-hackers” or “anti-hackers”.   In the most commonly accepted perception of a hacker, the public sees a hacker as someone who steals their ID by hacking into their computers.  Regardless of how much you may try to explain that you are using “hacker” as a marketing slogan or that not all hackers commit crimes, it does not matter because you most likely will not be hired because of the perception and perception is reality for all intent purposes.  The liability of hiring someone into law enforcement who openly claims to be a hacker is not something a government agency will want to take on as a full-time employee.  Sure, maybe some contract work while you are escorted around the building while you work on a limited project, but not as a full-time, badge carrying, free to roam anywhere you want officer.  Do I agree with this?   It doesn’t matter because liability and the perception of future liability is what matters.

So, if you want a better chance of being hired in law enforcement, be careful with calling yourself a “hacker”.  I can promise you, without hesitation, that everything you put online, say at a conference, write in a blog, or speak to a future job reference, will be looked at by the agency that is considering hiring you.    Law enforcement needs better technically proficient cops, so get that job by marketing yourself as such.


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Case study - Placing the Suspect Behind the Keyboard

Not too long ago, I read an article where the state’s largest cocaine bust happened because the driver was stopped for speeding.  The first thing I thought was, “Speeding…yeah, right”.   So, I called a good friend of mine who I worked some cool drug cases with and asked if that was his case.  But of course it was.  The article read like cases we worked together for some years.   The case is public knowledge today, but in short, a year of investigative work resulted in ‘taking off’ lots of drugs and cash using pre-textual traffic stops as wall cases to keep the core case going.  We did that a lot and it was a lot of work.

My point in the story is that when you see a simple case publicized, there is usually a lot more that has happened behind the scenes that most people will ever know.  Some of this is intentional, such as when a small part of a case is ‘walled off’ to protect the core of an investigation and other times the work is so intensive that to start talking about it will (1) bore the listener to death and (2) talk a week to flush out the details.

So here comes a really cool case I just found to illustrate these points.  In brief, this case is a cyberstalking case that was righteous in all aspects in that the cyberstalker truly needed to be caught and that the work done was awesometacular.

I’ve taken a few snippets from the affidavit to discuss some of the notable investigative aspects of the case.  As a reminder, that what you read in the affidavit is like seeing the tip of the iceberg of a case.  There is so much more in a case like this that is not in the affidavit.  Having written more search warrant affidavits than I can count, I cannot imagine how much work was done on the case based on what was included for the affidavit.  Very cool.

Side Note:  Read the entire affidavit when you get a chance.  Flesh it out.  Read it like a novel.  What would you have done differently or better? 


This is a key point. Either iCloud was hacked (as in a technical hack) or someone had access to the account physically (as in, someone who knew the victim and could have accessed her devices).  Eliminating the suspects who could hackers is impossible.  Eliminating suspects who are known to the victim is possible.

The suspect, “Lin”, erred in using variations of his name in social media accounts.  It’s only a clue, but important to build upon.  In all cyber cases, keep track of user names.  Sometimes there is a reason a username was chosen and perhaps clues to other information.   For each online service, such as Instagram, also consider that accessing each service can be done using many different devices from many different locations on many different occasions.  With each connection, the suspect risks being discovered either by his mistakes or service provider.  That means for you to look at every connection of every message, text, email, or login.


 Not much was mentioned in how the anonymity was obtained, but again, each communication is a potential disclosure due to a suspect’s mistake.  Considering that the false flag in the Matthew Brown is known by the victim, the assumption is that the suspect is known to the victim and/or Brown.  This can narrow the list of potential suspects down.

I threw this in just as a reminder for employers (and to remind your clients!) to backup/image departing employee devices for a set time period, just in case.  This is also a reminder to employers that even if they think nothing is left on the computer, usually there is something.  I’ve come across this multiple times and in one case, the entire case was closed with a single forensic analysis on a reinstalled OS from a departing employee.

At this point, it’s easy to see that the suspect (Lin) is probably the guy.

The similarity in style and content from multiple accounts can be tied together, at least as being too similar to be a coincidence.  By itself, not enough to prove a crime/incident, but when taken in totality of all evidence, it is very important.

This would be called a “slip up” by the suspect.  When details known only to a few people are discussed, the list of potential suspects gets very short.

Again, if physical access is needed to commit a crime, the list of suspects can be shortened.

Never give up on uncovering someone because of technology being used for anonymity.   Keep at it.  Keep looking.  Keeping thinking.  Time and effort works for you.  Time works against the suspect.

Technically, this is called, “the suspect screwed up”.   But it took getting the records from Google, which required having the idea to do along with the labor to gather legal cause to request it.


Social engineering by the suspect.  Very creative.  However, it required the suspect to create a social media account, email account, and obtain a phone number.  Again, consider how many times he would need to connect to the Internet, from one or more devices, from one or more locations in order to do this.  Each act is a potential windfall of evidence when the suspect makes a mistake. You just have to check every connection known and find the mistake. It is there.  You have to look.


And yet another Internet service to add (TextNow) to your investigation.  This is a good thing.  I have heard complaints from investigators about the number of leads to add to the list of things to do in an investigation every time something else comes up.  For me, I love it.  A dozen social media accounts? Cool.   A hundred social media accounts?  Even better.


Like I said, the more the merrier.  Most suspects do not realize that everything they do is not separate from each act.  There is usually some connection. It might be the same device used.  Or it might be the same IP address used. Or it might be the same service provider used.  The above would make a cool timeline to visually show the connections.

Again, when you have the “same” of anything in a case, do not discount it as a coincidence.  The same IP or the same email or the same username or the same style of writing can all point to the same suspect.

Search the devices to which you have access to either confirm or rule out suspects.  In this case, searching Lin’s previous workplace computer found evidence that linked him to the crimes he was committing using other devices.

Not conclusive, but when you put all the evidence together, no one will see anything other than Lin as the suspect because of being overwhelmed with the little things, like this, that point to him.


Past behavior is a good indicator of future performance/behavior.  In Lin’s case, based on his past behavior, I would say that this is what he is: a cyberstalker.  Once you read the entire affidavit, you’ll see what I mean.

Here’s my take on the case. 

The timespan was lengthy, and there isn’t a lot you can do about that.  I don’t know the details of how many people or agencies worked the case, but I can imagine that there were a few (maybe one or two) who spent a lot of time on it, bantered back and forth on the best way to work it, suffered through a lot of investigative failures and wasted time*, and worked hard to get resources to put the case together.

I can imagine the number of court and administrative orders to obtain the records of all the social media services, ISP records, and phone logs being overwhelming at times.  That is the way it is, so in that aspect, don’t feel like any one case is getting you down more than another case.  I would hope that every user account that the suspect used was investigated, including the “anonymous” accounts.   Other cases have shown that even when a third-party provider promises anonymity, they don’t really mean it.  You will never know until you ask and you will never know what great evidence you can get without asking for it.

I’m not plugging the books I wrote for these types of cases, but if you get these kind of cases, check out the books for some tips.  They are in a lot of libraries, easy to buy online, and the main point I work to get across is to find the one thing that will make your case

On Oct 17, I am giving a short webinar on Placing the Suspect Behind the Keyboard.  If you stick around for the entire half hour, you’ll get a printable cert of attendance that you can take back to your employer for training credit to justify the time to join during work.   And also, if you stick it out to the end (it’s only a half hour…..), I’m giving a discount to the 13-hour online course that is the biggest I’ve ever done.  $45 for the entire $799 course.   But the promo will only be good for an hour after the webinar, and only for 100 attendees in the webinar; meaning that you’ll have to sign up right away if you want the course. 

Be sure to add your name to the webinar here: Register

If you are like me, you like to dig.  You like to find out whodidit.  You want to put together a good case.  And most importantly, you want to stop bad people doing bad things to good people.  Isn’t that the point of all this?

 *Sarcastically I said “wasted time”. I mean that time spent without a positive result may seem like wasted time, but it is not, since you have to spend time investigating and much of it results in not much forward movement of the case.  Accept the time spent feeling like you are running in circles as part of what it takes to get it done.

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Free Webinar - Tips and Case Studies on Placing the Suspect Behind the Keyboard

I had coffee with a detective (ie...consulted on a case....) to discuss his case where tying a person to one specific device was necessary for criminal charges in an overly complex investigation.  There were a few things I learned and a few things he learned because of our talk.  I think it would beneficial to talk about some of the things we discussed in a webinar to pass along tidbits that can help others.

Not to take up a lot of your time, but how about a half hour of talking about placing a suspect behind a device?   I want the webinar to be live in order to take as many questions as I can squeeze in, while also packing in as much as I can in half an hour.  If you'd like to attend, register here:  SIDE NOTE:  There will be a bonus in the webinar that most likely be of interest to you.


The webinar is scheduled for Oct 17 at 11:00am (PST).   The webinar will be limited by virtue of the platform I'm using so if you want to get in, register early.  Given enough registrations, I may do a second webinar on the same topic afterward.  And if you do register, have some questions ready or even send them in advance (email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) so I can be sure to cover as many of the questions as I can.  Or just listen in.  This topic applies to both criminal and civil cases, so whether your job is to have a person arrested (or vindicated) or an employee fired (or retained), the tips apply equally.

As I have always said and believed, keep looking for that one thing that can make your case or save you minutes or even weeks of work.  Once you find that one thing, you will crush your cases as if they were Styrofoam cups.  Tip: that "one thing" is different for everyone, but we all need it to be successful.  Those are the things I want to talk about and share.

And here is one tip you can use:  Get your mind in the game.  This is easier said than done.  You can tell yourself every day to do it, but it won't work unless you know how to do it.  Just saying it doesn't work.  But once you do get your mind in the game, you will be the master of that game.  By 'game', of course I mean your job or the task at hand.  When you can create laser beam focus on a task, you will own it.   I drill this concept with the ways to do it in every talk I do.  It's that important because if your mind is in the game, you can do anything.

**** Update -Oct 17 *****

I'll have one more webinar session, limited to 50 attendees.  Details to be posted soon.


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Placing the Beard Behind the Keyboard

News reporting does an injustice to the work done in cases like these, only because the articles make it sound so easy.  But this particular case illustrates placing the suspect behind the keyboard using several methods that are sometimes overlooked (but of course, these methods and more are described in both my online course and book…).

In short, the case is simply that a criminal dark-web administrator (Gal Vallerius) was arrested.  The complaint can be read here:

The details of the case of how the suspect was identified and caught are more interesting, and are the things you can do in your cases.  One thing of note is that the number of agencies investigating Gal Vallerius included several alphabets (DEA, FBI, IRS, DHS, USPS) and probably several other LE agencies as well.  My point is that you can be the sole investigator for a police department of 5 officers and do most, if not all, of the same work on a case with positive results.  You just have to be creative, find resources, and use the resources available to you.

Some of the methods used in this case included:

  • ·         Bitcoin account tracing (a book is coming out on how to do it in 2018… “Bitcoin Forensics”)
  • ·         Writing style comparisons of known writings
  • ·         Open source information converted into intelligence (social media: Twitter, Instagram)
  • ·         Digital forensics (recovered log-in credentials to the dark web market, PGP encryption keys, and $500K of bitcoin)

These are just the public methods used for the complaint.  Criminal complaints/affidavits do not contain the entire case, the entirety of investigative methods, or even the entirety of evidence obtained.  Complaints only contain enough to establish probable cause for criminal charges/search warrants.  I can imagine that reading the case will have many more methods used to identify Vallerious, and I would imagine that none of the methods are secretive as typically they never are.  Practically, the methods to uncover criminals on the Internet regardless if they were secret or not, and most (if not all) are publicly known.   I’m not referring to the NSA/CIA methods, but the criminal investigator methods which require a higher approval of legal authority.

If you are not looking for cases like this to analyze, you are not going to improve in your cases as fast as you could be improving.  When I come across a case online that talks about how someone was caught, I review it, line by line.  When I come across someone who did a case like this, I buy a cup of coffee and talk about the case.  You should too.  Debriefing your casework and the casework of others will bring up things that were done wrong and things that could have been done better.  Debriefing cases makes future cases better.  Sometimes you even have to take a zinger for doing something wrong in order to do it right the next time.  It may hurt in the short term, but you’ll be a hero in the long term.  Do not ignore mistakes, errors, or omissions.  Debrief yourself and improve.  This is perhaps the best way to master a skill.  Consider that military special operations and law enforcement swat units do this for every mission and every training exercise in order to improve exponentially. 

In the next month I will have a live (and free) webinar of about 20 minutes to discuss and analyze a case of placing the suspect behind the keyboard.  Stand by for the notification in October via Twitter and this blog.

A point I want to make is my opinion on the investigative aspect of DFIR, or more pointedly, of “forensics”.  Digital forensics and investigations tied together as one.  An investigator does not have to be a digital forensics analyst in order to use the results of an analysis in a case.  A digital forensics analyst does not have to be an investigator in order to identify evidence.    However, you need both to pull evidence and apply it in an investigation.  One person can do both jobs or many people can do both jobs.

I have been fortunate to have worked as a police detective for years.  I took a lot of courses that taught investigations, was assigned hundreds of cases, initiated tons more, and worked with dozens of US and foreign law enforcement agencies on many of those cases.  So, getting into digital forensics only required I learn about computers (yes, it’s more than “computers”, but I’m coming to that shortly).  I can identify what is evidence, put information into intelligence, compile it all into a case, and wrap it up nicely with a big bow because I have successfully done it so many times before and worked with some very gifted investigators.  By gifted, I mean that they must have worked very hard to become very good in their jobs.  

I have found that it is easier to learn the technical part than the case-building part, only because outside the LE would, the technical training is everywhere, and the case-building part is not.  If a new DFIR person wanted to learn about the Windows registry, in about 3 minutes on the Internet, a dozen websites and videos can be found to show not only how, but with what tools to use.  The same can be said for any technical know-how.  Try to find case-building information and you’ll come up a bit short.  Case-building is not report writing. Without knowing what it takes to build a case, all the best DF work in the world won’t save the case.

Summary please…

When you work DFIR, work it like it’s a case, because it is.  Whether or not the ‘case’ goes to trial or to the boss, you really are investigating.  The only exception is if you are only pulling out data and then it’s just data recovery.  But if you are looking for a smoking gun (which could be a civil matter with document manipulation allegations or a criminal matter with dead bodies), you are investigating by looking for evidence, ergo: forensics.  Treat it as such.  Put yourself into an investigative mindset.   Ask yourself questions as you move forward;

  • What do I need?
  • How does it relate to the case?
  • How do I get it?
  • What do I do with it once I get it?

Think: a prefetch file is just a prefetch file unless you can show the relevance to the case.


Don’t just do data recovery.   Do DFIR.

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Some of your cases probably already have cryptocurrency evidence in them...


The Bitcoin Forensic book is moving forward with a fantastic addition of a tech editor: Heather Mahalik!.  I could not be more honored than to have Heather as the tech editor.  If you are reading this, you already know who Heather is in the DFIR community, but if not, take a look here: Heather's Bio.

A few things about the book.

Yes, it is tentatively titled “Bitcoin Forensics”, but the subtitle is “Cryptocurrency Investigations”.  The intention is to not only cover Bitcoin, but the alternative coins (altcoins) as well.   Coins such as Litecoin and Monero will be in the book because few investigations will have only one coin involved since converting from one coin to another in attempts to launder proceeds will most likely occur in every fraud investigation.  I've had a few conversations about the anonymous coins, where tracing transactions is 'impossible'.   There is always something you can do that benefits a case, even when something is seemingly impossible.  The book will cover those difficult cases too.

Another thing…most analysts and investigators have not yet come across cryptocurrency in their investigations.  Consider that if you are not looking for it, you will not find it, and by not looking for it, this will be the biggest hole in your investigation.  Even if you find evidence of fraud/money laundering with cryptocurrency, you can easily miss important evidence that may not be found until later, if ever (such as this case).  Our current lack of competence in this area only makes it easier for criminals to succeed.  For the forensic analyst, you need to know not only the artifacts of cryptocurrency evidence, but also that what amounts to evidence (ie: what is evidence).  

If you don’t believe Bitcoin (as in all types of cryptocurrency, not just Bitcoin) isn’t going to be a major method of financial transactions and part of most every money laundering, fraud, and IP theft case, consider that it already is, you just don't know it yet.  The Bitcoin Forensics book will show the forensic artifacts along with the 'how money laundering works with cryptocurrency' in order to walk you through your first case and the next case and the next case and the...

As to cryptocurrency adoption in everyday is already here. 

A suggestion: You may want to buy a little Bitcoin to start your foundation of what you will be coming across in your cases...

If you haven't got into cryptocurrency yet and want $10 of free Bitcoin, use this referral link to sign up for a Coinbase account: .  


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“Forensically Sound”.  One of those phrases that is commonly used, misused, unused, and abused.

Disclaimer: This is my opinion, which is not a legal opinion. I call it Brett's Opinion.  But along with that, I have identified, seized, analyzed, requested analysis, checked-in/out, transferred/assumed custody, and had entered into court cases thousands of items of evidence from electronic data to brain matter.   

This short post is to give my opinion on the use “forensically sound”.  The reason I want to mention this is because I witnessed a DF expert state in public that capturing live (volatile) memory is not forensically sound because you can’t reproduce it or enter it as evidence.  I think we must be careful about some things we say.  

In the most basic sense, any “thing” that is accepted by a court as evidence is forensically sound, since the court accepted the process used and admitted the "thing" as evidence.

We get caught up when performing computer science work in digital forensics and tend to forget that every situation is a bit different from the next situation, in either minor or major ways.  The general processes we use are similar for each situation, but of course we vary a little depending on what we come across.  The situation we approach dictates how we proceed.

There was a time when pulling the plug on a computer to image the hard drive with a hardware write blocker was the only forensically sound method accepted.  Doing it any other way meant you ruined the evidence.  This belief persisted for years even after realizing volatile memory is also valuable evidence (sometimes even more valuable than data on the drive).  Sure, sometimes you need to pull the plug and sometimes volatile memory has nothing to do with what a specific case may need.  That goes to the point of every case being different.  For the must-always-use-a-hardware-writeblocker crowd, I’m not sure what they do with the computers that the hard drive cannot be removed for a multitude of reasons.  Situation dictates choices.

My point is that we all have best intentions and rely upon generally accepted processes; however, we need to also be aware of what evidence is and what evidence is not.  If you can get a ‘thing’ admitted into court that can prove or disprove an allegation, then you have evidence.  Forensically sound more aptly applies to the technical processes and methods, but does not really define whether or not a ‘thing’ is evidence or not or that a court will accept it or not.

Another holdover from days past is that of being able to exactly reproduce an analysis in order to be forensically sound.  On a hard drive that was shut down when you approached it, imaged through a hardware write blocker, and verified using a software that everyone else uses – easy peasy.   On anything else, good luck.   Live memory changes as you capture it.  Shutting down/pulling the plug on a computer changes the data.  Waiting to decide whether or not to shutdown or pull the plug or image live changes the data (it changes as you watch and think about what to do!) A crime lab that tests the content of a drug destroys a portion of the drug that it tests.  An autopsy on a body damages and changes the body (as does the passage of time with decomposition).  A burning building destroys evidence of the cause of the fire, as does the efforts to put out the fire.

When teaching court admissibility of digital evidence, be careful if you are unsure of what is forensically sound, especially when talking about evidence.   You’d be amazed at the types of evidence that can be admitted in a trial along with the evidence that doesn’t.  Best answer: do your best with the evidence seizing situation you encounter, admit it as evidence, and let the court decide if it was forensically sound.  Personally, I believe anyone working in a job where you look at data should be versed in 'evidence'.  Cops have it easy.  They deal with it every day until it becomes second nature.  For everyone else, a short class in 'what is evidence' can make or break a case later.

Then there is the sliding scale of veracity…but that’s another story.

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When “intent” is an element of the crime, you better find the intent.


Proving intent can give you the dickens of a time.  It’s easy to prove what happened.  And it is mostly easy to prove how it happened.  Many times you can even prove who caused it to happen.  But the stickler is always the why (aka: intent or reason).

A murder-for-hire case I solved some years back required finding the intention of the hired gun (so we could arrest him!).  The investigative plan was to not only prevent a murder, but gather enough evidence to arrest and charge the murderer-to-be without having a murder occur.  We had about an hour to find the hit-man before he was on his way out the door to kill the victim-to-be.

This particular case was a husband (Suspect #1) who hired a hit-man (Suspect #2) to kill Suspect #1’s ex-wife.  The hit-man's girlfriend wanted to turn in both #1 and #2.  Suspect #1 paid $5,000 to Suspect #2 to kill the ex-wife in a very specific and explicit manner that included a Corona beer bottle, duct tape, and a few other specific items.  You can imagine the rest.  If the girlfriend didn’t come forward at the last minute, it would have been a murder case instead of a murder-for-hire case.

Anyway, we found where the hit-man was holed up and arrived just as he was preparing to leave for the murder.  When I approached him, guess what he had on him (besides the meth pipe between his lips)?   He had a Corona beer bottle, duct tape, and the few specific items that he was told to use in the murder. 

The point of the story is that the items he possessed spoke volumes of his intention.   

I also found a printed Google map of the victim-to-be's home address….added to the computer search artifacts on the computer.  So yeah, we had intention all over the place.  The end result of this case was the hit-man fessed up, agreed to cooperate against Suspect #1 by making a recorded call about the murder-for-hire (in return for nothing but him begging for forgiveness), and both #1 and #2 were arrested, charged, and convicted.

A side note to this story was that Suspect #1 was mistaken in the address of his ex-wife.  He had Google’d his ex-wife’s name and clicked a link to a woman with the same name in the same city, but….it was a completely different person.  I called this case my “Sarah Connor Case”. 

Back to intention.  With any crime or civil matter where you need to know the why, find the little things that imply the why.  You can’t ever get the real answer, even when told by the suspect because you can’t read a person’s mind.  But you can get the inferences based on the implications of evidence you find.  Examples are Internet browsing forensic artifacts such as searching for a person, searching for a hit-man, and searching for how to cover up a murder.  Add that to the physical items you may come across and you start to overload intention onto the defense.  

Here comes the Amazon Bookstore.

I thought about finding intention today (everyday actually) when I checked out the Amazon bookstore, and I mean the actual brick-and-mortal Amazon bookstore, like a real bookstore.  I saw that the books had 3x5 cards with bar-codes.  A salesperson showed me the Amazon app to scan the bar-code and immediately be taken to the website to order the book.  The interesting part is that the Amazon app works with just about anything you can take a photo of.  Take a photo of a pressure cooker and you’ll be directed to the Amazon URL to purchase the pressure cooker directly from your phone.   This is great for Amazon’s business.  Take a photo of practically any object and your phone’s browser will open to the page with that item. Works well enough to be more than impressive.

But I think differently.  Yes, it’s cool to be able to be in a department store, take a photo of a high-priced item, and have Amazon show you their less expensive price; however, if you investigate anything, you probably already thought about what I am about to say.

Photos are good.  Online shopping is good.  Physical shopping is good.  Shopping for elements of a crime and taking photos of them is super!

I blogged about photos before in the manner of placing the suspect behind the camera.  In that post, I mentioned that the content of the photo may be relevant to the crime. Maybe it is a photo of the crime scene, victim, witness, or even the suspect as a selfie.  But it may also contain elements of a crime or future crime in regards to the tools of the trade.  Perhaps photos of houses or a business that are the potential targets of a robbery or burglary.

As another example, I assisted in a unique gang case, where one gang member took a photo of a car that was similar to a rival gang member’s car.  That single photo was sent to all gang members with an order to find the car and then do something not-so-nice to the rival gang member, which they eventually did.  The photo content was evidence of course, but more so, the intention implied by the photo and text.  This type of evidence screams confession without the suspect ever having to speak a word.

More to the point is that you already know that Internet search terms can imply intent.  Now you know that shopping can imply intent and you can get shopping habits not only from Internet search terms, but smart phone photos, like the ones you can take with the Amazon app.  Imagine finding photos in a case, where the content somehow matches the evidence in the case.  It may not be photos of the evidence, but perhaps photos of items that resemble your evidence, much like a gang member taking a photo of a car that is looks like a car of someone he wants dead.

Remember now…tools don’t commit crimes. People do.   Apps are just apps, but boy do they hold some gold nuggets of evidence.  In your cases, keep asking yourself, "how can I show intention and prove the suspect did it?".  You'll be surprised at the little things you can find when you ask yourself about the little things.


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Luck has nothing to do with it if you are good at what you do.


When the bad guy is caught because the bad guy made a mistake, that does not mean bad luck for the bad guy or good luck for the good guy.   It just means that the investigator not only caught the mistake, but ran with it.  This takes effort and skill, not luck.   If you want to see luck (good or bad), watch a Roulette table or throw some dice in Vegas.  Granted, I have seen bad guy mistakes that truly dropped into the lap of an investigator, but that is typically not typical, and even then, if you don't recognize it for what it is, you'll miss out on a freebie.

A good case study you can see on Youtube is Ochko123 - How the Feds Caught Russian Mega-Carder Roman Seleznev

One of the really good statements from the presentation is “…mistakes just happen…and if law enforcement sees that one mistake it’s something to run on…”.

The trick in seeing that one mistake resides in only three questions to ask yourself (today, ask yourself these questions today):

1.  What kind of mistakes happen?

2.  Where do I look for those mistakes?

3.  What do I do when I find one?

Use three simple questions to solve the most complex of cases, whether it is a hacking case or a murder case or a fraud case or an employee theft case.  Any case.  I harp on this concept often, only because it is so important. I harp on it enough to write books about it, teach it, and do it myself.  The concept is the same.  Know the mistakes that the bad guys make, find the mistakes, and know what to do with the mistakes when you find them.  

The old adage of the bad guy has to be right 100% of the time and the police only need to be right once is true in that you only need to find the one mistake to break the case.   Looking back on my biggest cases that were overwhelmingly complex on the surface, I can reflect on the first little cracks in the cases that were all tied back to an error by the suspect.  Every single one of them.  It took effort to find the mistakes, but they were there.

Solving cases has always been this way.   There is no magic in solving a complex case other than the illusion of magic that you create for everyone who watches you run circles around them as you close cases.   When you meet someone who always has a difficult time of closing a case, it is because they are not finding the errors that are being made by the suspect.  That’s it.  For whatever reason, the mistakes are not being caught or if they are, the mistakes are not being exploited by the investigator to break the case open.  Anyone who says that mistakes don't happen anymore are mistaken.  Mistakes happen, have always happened, and will continue to happen.  Human nature and technology failures will continue to allow investigators to solve the unsolvable cases.

You still have to work hard even after being skilled at finding mistakes made by the suspect.  There is no way around that.  When I was a young patrol officer, I made a lot of arrests.  I'm talking a lot of felony arrests.  My department had a tad bit over 125 commissioned officers, but in one year alone, I made more felony drug arrests than the rest of the department...combined.  I was called "lucky".  I was asked constantly, "How are you so lucky?".   My answer was always something to the effect of "I'm just lucky I guess."   In reality, I worked hard.  I talked to a lot of people on the street (citizens and not-so-much-citizens).  I watched drug houses every minute I could.  I simply worked hard and it appeared that I was "lucky". Luck has nothing to do it.  You need the effort and you need to know what you are looking for.  I brought that same luck with me when I made detective.  I bring it whereever I go.  You can see this concept in business where a business makes a mistake and a competitor exploits the heck out of it.  You can do it too with your cases, regardless of the type of case, size of case, or importance of the case.

If you are looking for a headstart on answering the three questions, I’ll give you  50% off the Placing the Suspect Behind the Keyboard online course, plus two free books (PSBK and HBTK) to go along with the course.  $399.50 for 13 hours of (1) what mistakes are made, (2) where to look for the mistakes, and (3) what to do when you find one.  But hurry, you only have a few days before the promo expires on 8/31/17.

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Kicking in the wrong doors

I like reading Brian Krebs’ blog.  Brian is awesome at tracking hackers and writing about it.  While reading his latest post, Blowing the Whistle on Bad Attribution, my internal response was to keep repeating, “yes yes yes”.

I’m not going to get into his blog post other than recommend it as a good read about attribution.  Now…about kicking in the wrong doors….

My #1 concern as a police officer and detective was arresting the right bad guy.  The last thing I ever wanted was to arrest the wrong person (aka.. an innocent person).  I took more steps to verify that probable cause existed than was probably legally required to arrest the right person, but arresting the wrong person is way worse than missing the right person.  Police work was my entry into attribution.  

I experienced the effects of wrongful attribution in police work by other investigators.  On one occasion, a detective in a task force I was assigned had worked a drug case that was at best described as a disaster.  This detective that I shall not name typed up an affidavit, swore to it, had the judge sign the search warrant, and gave that search warrant to the SWAT team to serve on an early morning.  After the SWAT team secured the house, I went in to help with the search.  Guess what.  Wrong house.  Wasn't even close.   I could tell as soon as I walked inside.  The ‘right’ house was a block away.

This particular case was due to a single and sole factor of not doing a good job.  The detective never visually identified the right house (and never even looked at the wrong house either).  The work was lazy; the detective assumed that she had the right house because the informant told her it was the right house.  The funny thing was…the informant gave the correct address but the detective even got that wrong and never corroborated the right address or the wrong address.  Didn’t even check any records to see who lived at the address to which the affidavit attested or even the right address. 

And yes, a friend of mine who was in a different drug unit presented me with a sarcastic, yet humorous, certificate for the detective’s work in the drug case…I still have it as a reminder to never let this happen to me.

Oh well…that doesn’t happen much..right?

Turns out that I saw this happen on more than a few occasions, where the wrong door was kicked in, or the wrong person was arrested, or evidence that was seized and used against someone actually turned out not to be evidence at all.  It happens, but it really shouldn’t.  I know a prosecutor who had been chilling after work in her living room when her door was kicked in by police error...whups.  Bad attribution with a quick legal settlement.

On the cyber aspect of attribution, the job is way harder than a traditional criminal case such a bank robbery or burglary.  Traditional crimes require the physical person to be physically present to physically commit the crime on a physical person or physical item of property.  The amount of evidence left behind ranges from fingerprints to security camera videos that captures the entire crime as it happens.  With digital crimes, not so much.  With digital crimes, we get deep in guesswork without the benefit of getting our hands on the tools used in the crime, other than the electronic data we can find.

Let’s get to the point.

Wrongful attribution is more than just wrong; it is dangerous. Attribution of digital crimes is also easy to get wrong, because not only is there less evidence, but the evidence left behind can be intentionally or inadvertently misleading.  A malware that looks Russian does not mean that Russia did it.  Maybe "Russia" did, maybe they didn’t.  Even then, to broadly state that a nation-state, organization, group, or specific person did it, cannot be taken as totally accurate without a lot of corroborating evidence.  Maybe the allegation is correct.  Maybe it is not.  

Even if attribution is spot on (in that you guessed correctly), unless you have the actual devices used and the person in cuffs admitting to it, you really only have assumptions that are difficult at best to prove or disprove.  IP addresses can be misleading or intentionally deceptive.  MAC addresses can be spoofed.  Caller ID can be spoofed. Malware can be modified to appear to originate from a specific person or organization.  Online claims can be false (where someone else takes the credit to get ‘street cred’ or fake online accounts can be created to point to innocent persons taking the blame).  

At best, we can only say things like, “Based on what we found, the incident points to Suspect A”, and certainly should not state that “Suspect A did it because our electronic evidence proves it”.   Proving a crime was committed by a specific suspect is a leap beyond believing that a specific suspect did it if you don't have enough direct and circumstantial evidence that can convince a judge or jury of peers.

I don’t fault anyone making bad attributions as long as everyone knows that without hard evidence, we are only making assumptions. It’s only human nature to assume, especially if emotions and bias is involved.  I can’t remember the number of times where a victim told me that he knew who victimized him but in actuality, the victim was only assuming who did it based on his emotion of who he thought did it, not on any evidence.  If police officers ran out and arrested people based on their feelings or mere suspicions, we’d be living a way different country.  We shouldn’t be doing that in the cyber cases either.


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Knowing “how-to-do-it” is important, but first you need to know “what-to-do”.

My first months as a narcotic detective sucked.  My partner (ie. the senior narc) was less helpful than a doorknob on the ceiling.  The initial On-the-job training basically consisted of “figure it out” and “I am not going to help you figure it out”.   In time, I figured it out.  It took nearly being killed on occasion and suffering through a few investigations.  Did I mention my first months as a narc sucked?

Here is what I learned with that experience: Knowing what you have to do is more important than the how to do it, because if you don’t know the what-to-do, the how-to-do-it doesn’t matter.   It’s like registry forensics.  If you learn all about how to do it, but you have no idea of why you should in one case but not in another, then you are missing the what.

Let’s consider one registry item.  There are probably dozens of software applications that will deliver you straight to USBStor in the registry where you can pull out data on USB devices.  You can spend a week in a registry course working one specific software and then self-learn a dozen more registry tools all for the effort of pulling out registry information. But, so what?  Being able to pull out registry information willy nilly is useless if you don't know what to do with it (or why).

The what is having an objective and purpose to go into the registry for that specific data.  You need to know what you need for evidence to prove or disprove an allegation.  You need to know what you need to make the case.   The what is going to be a lot more than pulling out a registry key.  

Then, after pulling the data out that you determined is necessary to make your case, you need to tie the data to a person.  And you need to articulate how the data you found is relevant and that it is evidence which relates to a person.  Simply finding that a flash drive was plugged into a machine does not make a case if you can’t articulate the connection, no matter how great of a forensic job you did to ‘recover data’.

I bring this up so that when you take a training course in forensics, ask the instructor to also cover the what in addition to the how.  Learn the individual skills, but also learn when you need to employ those skills and why; otherwise, spending a full workday in the registry just because you know how isn’t going to make your case if you don’t know what you need to do in your case. 

The what is the forest.  The how are the trees.  You really do need to see the forest.

Going back to my narc years, as soon as I figured out what makes a good case, my effectiveness (and workload...) skyrocketed.  I initiated more than a dozen international organized drug trafficking cases (aka: OCDETF), seized over a ton of drugs, worked several wiretaps, solved murders, recruited into a federal task force, uncovered terror training cells, and traveled internationally working undercover.  All it took was seeing the big picture in what was needed for a good case. 

The skills? Those are the easy things to learn.  That's why I push the big picture so hard with the training I give and the things I write because once you get it, your effectiveness will skyrocket and you can focus on learning the skills that you know you will need, not skills for sake of having skills.

As a side note, I used this concept when getting into forensics more than a decade ago.  It worked out just fine (but that first month of narc work still sucked).

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Bitcoin Forensics - The book


The table of contents is done!  Or at least the tentative table of contents is done.

You'd figure that a table of contents would be the easiest thing to write for a nonfiction book, but not only is it not the easiest, but it changes as you write.  I've learned that a good plan for a table of contents helps keep the book focused, but I also learned that as you research, you either add or subtract to the original plan.  Some of the book has been started as well, but the table of contents is what I want to get out for a few reasons.  One, build your interest in cryptocurrency investigations and get you excited about the book, (2) get input if you have it on what you would like to see in the book, and (3) check if you have interest in contributing to the book process.

The tentative table of contents
  • Introduction
    • You should maybe get started learning this sooner than later
    • Eventually, every case where money is involved will involve cryptocurrency
  • Chapter 1 - Money
    • Currency
    • Physical money
    • Virtual money
  • Chapter 2 - Money Laundering
    • Traditional methods (simple to complex) with physical money
    • High tech methods (simple to complex) with virtual money
  • Chapter 3 - The Blockchain
    • It is not just for Bitcoin
    • Blockchain is a big deal
  • Chapter 4 - Wallets, Exchanges, and Transactions
    • How to use cryptocurrency
    • How cryptocurrency changes everything in money laundering investigations
  • Chapter 5 - Anonymity and Cryptocurrency
    • You are not anonymous when using cryptocurrency
    • You are anonymous when using cryptocurrency
    • The Dark Web Markets and Cryptocurrency
  • Chapter 6 - Cryptocurrency Investigations
    • Device forensics (artifacts)
    • Forensic tools
    • Tracking transactions on the Blockchain
    • Seizing wallets
    • Identifying the owner of a cryptocurrency wallet
    • Legal issues
  • Chapter 7 - Case Studies
    • Money laundering related crimes
    • Terrorism
  • Chapter 8
    • Putting it all together
    • Tying suspects to wallets and devices
    • Tying suspects to cryptocurrency transactions
  • Summary
  • Appendix
    • Everything we can put together as resources for you!

We have a general idea of how long each section will be, but won't know until we write it.  So one chapter may be way longer than another simply because there is so much to discuss.  Don't worry about being overwhelmed with cryptocurrency information as this book is for you, the practitioner, the investigator, and the trier of cases.

There is one request (or offer, depending on how you look at it):

Contribute to the book.

If you ever thought of writing a book, or contributing to a book, but wanted to dip your toes in first, this is an opportunity.  I have a handful of crypo cases worked and Tim has more than a bit of research into cryptocurrency investigations.  I already have a few offers of case studies and research that I will be taking people up on; however, if you have interest as a contributor, email me (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).  Whether you'd like one of your cases featured in a case study, share some things you did in a case, or share some research findings, we are open to all.  That what we use is credited directly to you in a peer-reviewed, tech-edited, professionally published digital forensics book.  

On case studies you may want to use, I am way familiar with police cases, privacy, and legal restrictions on public disemination. I am also aware of public records laws and if you have a case to talk about, I can easily formally receive a copy through public records and be able to talk to you about it without worrying of releasing any information that should not be released.

On research, if you have done some work already, we're glad to incorporate part or whole, as you would like seen in the book.

Our goal is not fame or fortune, but to write the best book on a topic that will be red hot sooner than you think.  But if you want to be famous...get ahold of me. I'll put in you in the book :)

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Yes, you can place the suspect behind the keyboard, even if Tor is used.

Earlier this year, I was asked to give a talk to a small group of investigators on putting together a case on anonymous criminals on the Internet.  Right out of the gate, from the back forty (ie..the back of the room), I was told that it can’t be done, that only the NSA can do it, and that this was going to be a waste of time.  No kidding.  I never met that guy before in my life, didn’t even start the talk yet, and he instantly reminded me of someone I worked with before, who was affectionately known, “the dinosaur” before he retired.  Within five minutes, I regretted doing this presentation.

Four hours later, the “dinosaur” apologized to me after I gave a dozen tips to try in his cases and gave a demonstration of how some of them can work in just a few minutes.

I bring this up because I know what this detective has gone through, having been given cases where there is no suspect information, or little-to-no evidence, and even uncooperative victims, yet, it’s your case to work.  After a few years, you either get burned out from failures or you learn to beat the technology by using your brain.

One of the demonstrations I did in the talk was to deanonymize a Tor user.  One person created a Tor account in class and sent me an email.  In 5 minutes, I had her IP address, which was verified as her agency’s IP address.

I didn’t use magic. I didn’t use a top-secret government hack.  And I didn’t disclose something that wasn’t already known how to do.  But what it showed was that it can be done on some occasions, and that it can disclose by physical location of where the suspect’s device was being used at a given time.  The recent FBI case of “booby-trapping” a video is an example of this method.

I am not the world’s best investigator, or a most famous hacker, or a super-forensic guru.  But I am someone that will chip away at a problem until I crack it open.  I search and experiment and search and experiment until I find something that works.  I quickly toss aside anything that slows me down or leads me in the wrong direction.  I want tools that work as I want them to work because I believe every case can be solved given the right circumstance.

When I wrote Placing the Suspect Behind the Keyboard, I truly meant every word in the book.  You can do it.   You can not only find criminals who are attempting to hide behind technology, but you can tie them to activity on a computing device.  It may take longer than you want, but you can do it, and when you do, the impact on the lives of others is immense.

For anyone thinking that I give away the ‘secrets’ for the world to see, I am not.  The secrets are already out there, except the problem is that only the bad guys know them.  On top of that, you can tell a criminal exactly how you are coming for him, step-by-step, and you will still be able to catch him just as you warned.  Investigative methods work regardless of the preparation to defeat them, as long as you do it right.  Sloppy work doesn’t work.

As the simplest example, I once did a knock-n-talk for a marijuana grow operation with my partner.  I knocked on the door and asked the owner for consent to search. I told the owner that he had the right to refuse consent, right to restrict the scope of a search, and the right to rescind the consent at any time.  He let the two of us in and of course, we found hundreds of marijuana plants.  My point….at the front door on a table was a book on cultivating marijuana, which was laid open to a chapter titled something to the effect of, “When the police ask for consent to search, just say no”.   Either the grower skipped that chapter or didn’t get to it yet, or politely asking for consent worked.  I’ve worked computer cases with the same story, where books on ‘how to get away with computer crime’ didn’t help the criminal.

The Internet is not evil.  Computers are not evil, (except many Artificial Intelligence robots, but that’s another story).  Even the Dark Web is not evil.  However, anything can be used for evil and criminals have exploited everything from a screwdriver to a smart phone for evil.  Your job, and I am sure your personal mission, is to find them.

With technology becoming easier to use every day, including using for bad intent, it is your duty to know how to use the same technology to defeat criminal use of technology.  Crimes will continue as they have for as long as humanity has existed, with the only difference being the tools used.  With the Dark Web, I foresee more cases of kidnappings, rapes, and murders being facilitated in the physical world because of it.

You can solve these hard to solve crimes.  Trust that you can, because you can.  Here are some of Brett’s Tips:

  1. Don’t quit.
  2. Don’t close a case that should never be closed.
  3. Try and try again.
  4. Learn how you can do something you didn’t know before.
  5. Know that if a device is connected to the Internet, it can be tracked.
  6. Know that if a device has been used to commit a crime, you can tie it to the criminal.
  7. Know that you don’t need superpowers or the Patriot Act to find criminals on the Internet.

I feel so strongly about the importance of this that I wrote two books about it.  I didn’t write the books to be famous, but to give some glimmer of hope for those investigators who only need to see how to do something to make their cases which they didn’t know before. 

For the investigators that would rather listen and watch how it can be done, I created an online course.  I taught the course for a year in rooms full of investigators and solved a few of their cases IN CLASS.  All it takes is a spark to get your brain on the right track at full speed and no brakes.  All it takes is that ‘one thing’.

The course I teach (Placing the Suspect Behind the Keyboard) is expensive when I give it in a classroom ($1895 a person).  It’s less expensive online ($799).  It’s even less expensive when you find and read blog posts like this ($95).  I feel that if you are reading these types of posts on the Internet, you must be looking for something to help close your cases.  That means you have the drive to do better and be better at your job.  And..I want to help.  Imagine spending a few hours to learn something that will affect the rest of your cases for the rest of your career.  

There really isn’t any reason to not learn how to work computer-facilitated cases when $95 can give you a whole box of “one things” to spark your investigations.  If you put forth the effort detailed in my books or courses, you can run circles around your peers and close the hell out of cases.  Who knows, you may even make the news.  More importantly, you may be saving someone's life.  What could be more important?

Use this link to register for Placing the Suspect Behind the Keyboard for $95 instead of the listed price of $799 (books not included in this promo).

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