(NewsNation Now) — Devices that are meant to trace the movement of phones and wallets now are being used to track unsuspecting people and their vehicles, officials say.
Apple AirTags are smaller than other tracking devices and boast a broader range. While the technology might be handy, it’s also raising concerns about safety and privacy.
Ellie Tindall of Tennessee got a strange notification on her phone and believes someone put an AirTag in her car.
“When I went outside to go look for the tag, there were two men in hoodies standing by my car, waiting,” Tindall said. “And the second that they saw me open the door with three men, they turned around and sprinted down the street”
Tindall said she discovered that her friend’s car was broken into but when she called the police they didn’t find a tracking device.
“But the cops were saying they’ll put it on your car so they’ll follow you home, and then it’s connected to your car, so when you leave your car, they’ll also break into your home,” Tindall said.
New York, Toronto and Florida have received similar reports.
Although there are other devices capable of tracking a person’s location, the AirTag is unique in its discreet size, according to Maurice Dawson, an assistant professor of information technology and management and the director for Cyber Security and Forensics Education at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
“With the apple AirTag, it’s smaller to conceal,” he said. “It works a little differently.”
Equally small devices like Tile trackers use Bluetooth to locate items within about 400 feet.
“If someone put a Tile in your bag and you walked away, it’s no big deal because when you’re out of that (range) they can’t find you,” Dawson said.
AirTags, however, send the location of your tracker to iCloud, where it can be viewed on a map. The whole process is anonymous and encrypted, according to Apple’s website.
The technology is a double-edged sword. It could be used by pet owners, parents monitoring their teenager’s car, or for the simple kind of wallet and car-key searches for which it’s advertised. But the risk of unknowingly being tracked is real, Denham Springs Police Officer Amber Fairborn said.
“You do have, unfortunately, human trafficking,” Fairborn said. “You could see it in a domestic situation, or you could be at the store and someone could see something that you bought that they wanted.”
In Louisiana, Jennifer Perkins received a notification on her phone when she got home from working a night shift. She realized that the owner of the device could see her current location.
“It showed everywhere I went that night and it had like a red dot of where they check your location,” Perkins said.
Where technological advances are made, opportunists are often close behind, according to criminologist Alex Pequero, recalling one case in New York involving a quarter-sized tracker inside a car bumper.
“I can’t tell you the last time I looked inside my bumper, if ever, and I don’t think I’m going to do it every single day,” Pequero said.
Apple addressed the issue in a statement, saying that AirTag is designed to discourage unwanted tracking.
“If someone else’s AirTag finds its way into your stuff, your iPhone will notice it’s traveling with you and send you an alert. After a while, if you still haven’t found it, the AirTag will start playing a sound to let you know it’s there,” the company said.
Android users, however, won’t automatically receive a notification when a tracking devices is detected, according to a statement from the West Seneca Police Department in New York.
“The only solution for Android is to download the Apple ‘Tracker Detect’ app through the Google Play store,” the police department wrote on Facebook. “This will allow you to actively scan for any Apple AirTags near your device, however it will not passively run in the background or automatically notify you the way an iPhone will.”
Non-Apple alternatives such as the app AirGuard also are available, according to the police department. Tools that detect and alert their user to any device emitting a signal also are a good alternative for Android users, Dawson said.
Beyond checking your phone, there are ways to guard against a stranger tracking your location.
“The bottom line is what it was last week and last year,” Pequero said. “Pay cognizant attention to your surroundings around your car, who’s around, take a look at your WiFi, start changing your passwords, have added protection.”