Metro Detroit man and police warn about Apple AirTags being used to track cars, people

Posted at 10:57 PM, Jan 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-14 23:27:37-05

NOVI, Mich. (WXYZ) — Police throughout metro Detroit are issuing a warning that thieves could be tracking you using a device called an Apple AirTag.

It’s meant to help people find lost keys or their purse but instead, it’s helping criminals find people and their cars.

John of Novi is the proud owner of a 2018 red Dodge Charger Scatpack. But if it weren't for an alert on his iPhone last month, it might not be his anymore.

“I get a notification and it said an unknown AirTag has been following you,” John recalled.

Following a day of Christmas shopping last month, John’s phone alerted him to an AirTag that, without his knowledge, had been tracking him for nearly four hours.

“It showed me basically like a dotted red line of everywhere I had been that entire day," John explained. "Down to the exact locations of everywhere.”

The notification let John play an alert. He then heard the AirTag chirping from under the back of his car. After spending hours looking for it, he couldn’t find it. He eventually took it to an auto shop, which found it under his spare tire. They explained to John how they believe it got there.

“They (suspects) took off a plate underneath the rear of the car to access the trunk," John explained. "Underneath the trunk is a drain plug, its about a 4 or 5 inch drain plug, big enough for your hand to go in. They unscrewed that and actually stuck the AirTag inside of my trunk where you keep the spare tire."

AirTags can only be disabled by removing the battery. Therefore, the AirTag had continued tracking John until it was discovered at the auto shop.

“It still had been tracking me. Those three to four days later, it still had been tracking me everywhere I went,” John said. "I’d move my car around, I didn’t feel safe.”

John said he turned the AirTag over to Novi police who are investigating. They aren't the only law enforcement agency in metro Detroit dealing with this issue.

Dearborn police say they’ve seen more and more cases just like John’s, including five cases in just the last week. They say the AirTags are often found hidden somewhere on a car.

“They (victims) don't know who would've done this, they don't know why people would be placing these AirTags on their cars or wherever they’re finding them," Sgt. James Isaacs of the Dearborn Police Department said. "It’s very concerning to them because it’s privacy.”

Isaacs says these cases are usually targeted at high-performance vehicles. Thieves find the cars in public and tag it to track the location and steal it at a more opportune time and place.

“They use them a lot in the metro Detroit region to put them on cars that they may later steal from or steal the vehicle itself,” Isaacs explained.

AirTags work by using Bluetooth to connect with nearby Apple devices, which then send a location back to the AirTag’s owner. If an AirTag is following you, your iPhone will automatically get a notification, allowing you to ping the AirTag, find it and disable it.

However, sometimes it takes hours for the notification to come through and it can take even longer to find it.

“They’re so small to find. Unless you have the ping open, it’s almost impossible to find,” John said.

Just last month, Apple also launched an app for Android called Tracker Detect, which will also give non-iPhone users an alert. Like iPhones, the app lets you ping a sound and also gives you a serial number of the AirTag.

Police say they can take that information and send a search warrant to Apple to find the owner of the AirTag. Isaacs says they are doing this in multiple investigations and Apple has been responsive to their requests.

"Your i-device can connect to it and it can display the serial number," Isaacs explained. "That’s what we want in law enforcement.”

Isaacs says even without the car being stolen, there are still potential charges they can pursue.

"There is a state violation for putting a GPS tracker on a motor vehicle without someones knowledge so certainly, that’s one charge,” Isaacs explained. "If it's some kind of domestic situation, it could be stalking charges or harassment charges.”

Police are getting the word out hoping to make people aware of the issue, so they can protect themselves and help police catch those responsible.

“We want to take an aggressive stance to make sure that the public is aware of this and we can prevent this from happening,” Cpl. Dan Bartok with the Dearborn Police Department said.

I this has happened to you or you get one of these notifications on your phone, police want you to contact them directly. If you feel you’re actively being followed and are in danger, call 911 immediately.