I-Team: Reports of people being tracked by Apple AirTags increasing; What to do if it happens to you

DAYTON — The News Center 7 I-Team is uncovering a disturbing and growing trend: predators using tracking devices like Apple AirTags to stalk their prey. It’s happening across the country and it’s even happening here in the Miami Valley. Now, the I-Team is digging into what you need to know so you don’t become a victim.

Apple AirTags are Bluetooth tracking devices that are about the size of a quarter. Apple pitches them as a product designed to help you “lose your knack for losing things.” They’re easy to slip into a wallet or snap them onto your keys, purse, or backpack.

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“If you lose them and they happen to be anywhere within range of an Apple device that has Bluetooth on, what it will do is basically tell you where that device is,” Dave Salisbury, the director for the Center for Cybersecurity and Data Intelligence at the University of Dayton, said.

The I-Team found reports of police all over the country saying some people are using the devices for the wrong reasons.

It even happened to a local college student in January.

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A Wittenberg University police report and dispatch records obtained by the I-Team show an 18-year-old freshman reported her iPhone sent her an alert that said, “Unknown Accessory Detected - the item has been moving with you for a while. The owner can see its location.”

In a call to dispatchers, the woman said, “There’s these things called Apple AirTags that someone can stick on things. And we found one detected ... And we can’t find it on the car.”

She told campus police the notification on her phone showed her the device had tracked her from John Glenn Columbus International Airport, where she said she had just picked up a friend, all the way back to campus in Springfield -- a 50-mile drive.

A Wittenberg University Police Department incident report obtained by the I-Team through a public records request read, “Officers attempted to use a Bluetooth locater app unsuccessfully. The exterior of the vehicle was searched and nothing was found.”

Apple knows about this problem with some people choosing to misuse their product. The company has an entire section of its web site dedicated to unwanted tracking and what to do it an unknown AirTag is with you. Another part of their web site says an iPhone will notice an unknown AirTag, separated from its owner, is traveling with you and send you an alert and that, “after a while, if you still haven’t found it, the AirTag will start playing a sound to let you know it’s there.” Although, the company does not specify how long of a timeframe “after a while” is.

In a statement sent to the I-Team, Apple said, “We take customer safety very seriously and are committed to AirTag’s privacy and security. AirTag is designed with a set of proactive features to discourage unwanted tracking — a first in the industry — that both inform users if an unknown AirTag might be with them, and deter bad actors from using an AirTag for nefarious purposes. If users ever feel their safety is at risk, they are encouraged to contact local law enforcement who can work with Apple to provide any available information about the unknown AirTag.”

“Air tags are nice things if you want to find your lost stuff,” Salisbury said. “Some people think it’s a good idea to drop them in somebody’s purse or coat pocket so that they can follow them home and you can know where they live. My recommendation, unless you immediately realize, ‘oh my friend’s keys were laying here,’ (the) first thing you need to be able to do is find the tag.”

Salisbury said that Wittenberg University student did the right thing by calling campus police when she noticed the notification on her phone. “If you think somebody’s dropping an AirTag on you to try to track you, it’s a good time to talk to law enforcement,” Salisbury said.

Police agencies say this kind of thing is starting to happen more often. So here’s what the I-Team uncovered about what you need to know in case it happens to you:

First, if you get a notification that an unknown AirTag is tracking you while you’re driving, you might not want to go home. You wouldn’t want to tell somebody who’s potentially tracking you where you live. Instead, you could park somewhere public or go to a police station.

If you have an iPhone, you’ll have the option to make the air tag play a sound so you can listen for it and try to find where it is.

There’s also a work-around for Android phones in the Google Play Store. The “Tracker Detect” app does the same thing for Google-based phones.

Both the “Tracker Detect” on Androids and the “Find My” app on iPhones are developed by Apple and each app provides animated instructions how to disable the AirTag. To do that, you push down on the silver side of the tag and twist it counter-clockwise to remove the battery.

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