Apple’s AirTags are showing up in suspected crimes

On Friday night, a woman in an East Coast city left a bar, drove away and soon began receiving alerts on her phone.

“AirTag Found Moving With You,” a notification on her iPhone said. “The location of this AirTag can be seen by the owner.”

Alarmed that someone could be following her, she began checking her purse, coat pockets and wallet in search of an AirTag, a tracking device made by Apple that went on sale this year. But she couldn’t find anything.

“I didn’t want to go home, so I spent the night somewhere and just said I’d figure it out in the morning,” she wrote later on her Twitter account, which she has since made private.

The next day, she had someone check her car, and they found an AirTag attached inside a wheel well.

“It bothers me cause no matter how *safe* women try to be (I was NEVER alone, parked somewhere well lit, etc…) it doesn’t matter if someone truly wishes to harm you,” she wrote.

In a follow-up message to NBC News, she said she now suspects someone was trying to steal her car because she wasn’t parked close enough to the bar for someone to associate her with the vehicle. She said she reported the incident to law enforcement but didn’t know if they would investigate. Her friend threw away the tracker, she said.

NBC News has not verified the details of her experience, but it echoes a growing number of claims about Apple’s new homing beacon. Evidence is accumulating that people are using AirTags to try to stalk others and steal cars, according to law enforcement officials, local news reports, personal anecdotes posted on social media and experts in domestic violence and computer security.

“I don’t think there’s any question that Apple’s AirTags are being used for stalking,” said Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital privacy group based in San Francisco. She was among the people predicting just such an outcome months ago.

Police in Colorado, Georgia, Michigan and Texas have reported the misuse of AirTags, including for domestic stalking and trying to steal cars. The sheriff’s office in Twin Falls, Idaho, warned residents this month that AirTags pose a danger, especially to potential victims of domestic violence. And one reported attempt at unwanted tracking described on TikTok has received more than 27 million views.

AirTags have a legitimate use that consumers may well embrace, but their misuse means they also fit in with an expanding market for surveillance technology as people buy other cloud-connected devices such as cameras to keep tabs on one another and to commit or deter crimes.

A Connecticut police department told residents in June to consider putting AirTags “somewhere hidden in your car, boat, jet ski or even a backpack,” to recover them in case of theft. Some people have reported using AirTags to recover stolen bicycles.

Homing beacons made by other companies have been around for years, but Apple’s product is especially powerful because it uses the company’s network of more than 1 billion devices and its cloud computing service to frequently update the location of an AirTag.

“People who are engaging in unhealthy or abusive behavior suddenly became aware of a sophisticated, inexpensive and enormously effective tool,” said Adam Dodge, a lawyer in California who specializes in training nonprofits, law enforcement agencies and other organizations in addressing online abuse.

Apple markets AirTags as a way to find personal items such as keys, wallets or backpacks, whether they’re lost at home or far away, like the beach. The tags sell for $29 each on Apple’s website, or four for $99.

An app named “Find My” on iPhones tracks how far away the tags are and displays a map with their locations.

But the AirTags connect with more than the owner’s iPhone. Using Bluetooth technology, an AirTag sends a signal that any nearby iPhone, iPad or Mac can detect. Those devices can then send the location of an AirTag to Apple’s cloud computing network and on to the owner.

Apple says that only the owner of an AirTag can see where it is, and that the device itself doesn’t store location data or history.

Apple has not released sales figures for AirTags. Gene Munster, managing partner at investment firm Loup, said he estimates sales so far at 25 million tags, based on an analysis of Google Search data for AirTags and other products.

An Apple representative did not dispute that some people were misusing AirTags to track others. He declined, though, to say how many times local law enforcement had contacted the company for information on an AirTag’s owner.

But while it’s not clear how widespread the abuse of AirTags is, the potential danger has prompted Apple to make two software updates in the past several months.

One change had to do with a feature to deter unwanted tracking: An AirTag will play a sound if it’s away from its owner for too long. In June, Apple shortened that time period from three days to a randomized time from 8 to 24 hours.

The second change relates to phone notifications people can get when they are traveling with someone else’s AirTag, including one that’s been planted. People with iPhones already had the ability to get a notification saying, “AirTag Found Moving With You: The location of this AirTag can be seen by the owner.” But similar notifications would not go to the billions of people with smartphones using the Android operating system. Last week, Apple released an app called Tracker Detect that those users can download to receive notifications, though that’s not a universal solution.

“Not everybody wants to download the app. Not everybody knows to download the app,” said the EFF’s Galperin. “Those mitigations aren’t enough.” Any wider change would require action by Android-owner Google, she said. (Google did not respond to a request for comment.)

In a statement Monday, Apple said: “We take customer safety very seriously and are committed to AirTag’s privacy and security.”

The company said its features to discourage unwanted tracking were a first in the industry. “We are raising the bar on privacy for our users and the industry, and hope others will follow,” it said.

Erica Olsen, safety net project director at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said the misuse of AirTags is concerning but she said Apple deservers credit for trying to create safeguards — something that she, too, said no other manufacturer of homing beacons had done.

“We’re happy to see some steps toward putting safeguards in place, and we’re really hoping it becomes an industry-wide standard,” she said. She added that a change is worthwhile if it makes the devices even slightly less useful to an abuser.

Olsen said that before AirTags were released in April, it was already standard practice for shelters and other service providers to check a person’s personal belongings for tracking devices after they arrive. And she said it’s not realistic to think of going back to a world without such devices, whether made by Apple or someone else.

“They’re not alone as a company in wanting to provide something that many people want to use — and want to use in a legitimate way,” Olsen said.

But there are situations in which Apple has not put forward a solution, such as when someone can’t find the AirTag that’s tracking them.

In a video from Nov. 21 viewed 27 million times, a TikTok user said her iPhone told her about an unknown accessory traveling with her from Texas on a flight to Boston. But after searching her luggage, she said in the video, “I can’t find a tracker.”

She said in a second video six days later that she eventually found an AirTag that someone had taped to the inside of her duffel bag. She did not say who might have done so, but she said in a comment that the bag had been near a sliding window in her truck while she was shopping in Texas before her flight.

Detective Bryan Franke, of the Longmont, Colorado, police department, said his department is investigating two recent cases of domestic stalking in which the suspects used AirTags. He said the devices have some advantages for would-be stalkers over other GPS trackers, including the connection to Apple’s cloud network to give more accurate locations, but also some disadvantages. They do not give historical data, and the phone notifications and AirTag’s sound are deterrents, he said.

“They’re going to be popular for now, but I think they’ll start to fade out. They won’t go away, obviously,” Franke said.

Other examples illustrate how AirTags can be misused.

A woman in Nashville, Tennessee, said that she believed an AirTag was placed on her car while helping a friend move this month, and that when she went to search for the device, two men who had been standing by her car ran away, WHNT-TV reported.

And officers in a Toronto-area police department have investigated five incidents since September in which people placed tracking devices including AirTags on high-end vehicles to locate and steal them later, according to a statement this month. News media in Austin and Detroit have reported similar incidents.

Apple says that every AirTag is registered with the owner’s Apple ID, which the company says it can make available to law enforcement — along with associated personal information of the AirTag owner — in response to a valid legal request, such as a subpoena.

But law enforcement doesn’t always make such a request, and many survivors of crime don’t have the money for a lawyer to investigate separately, said Dodge, the California lawyer. He said for now the best way to counter tracking devices is to be aware they exist and of how they work.

“What we tell stalking victims is to really trust their instincts,” he said. “I’m not holding my breath that we’re going to have a perfect tech solution, so we have to work through other means.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline by calling 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), visiting www.thehotline.org or texting START to 88788.

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