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Car trackers may have more applications than you realize. While there are many innocuous uses, such as a company that owns a fleet of vehicles tracking its assets or a car insurance provider monitoring your driving habits to assess risk, there are some hidden dangers you should be aware of. A recent surge in popularity for widely-available tracking devices that can track your car in real time, such as Apple AirTags, Tracki and Bounci, have given consumers convenience and peace of mind for keeping track of valuable items such as cars. But they have also opened the door for an increasing stalking problem. A viral Tik Tok recently exposed how Apple AirTags have been used to stalk people. So how do you know if your vehicle has an unauthorized GPS tracker on it and what should you do if you find one?
What trackers are meant for
Before we dive deeper into the downside of tracking devices, it’s worth noting that there are plenty of examples of how this technology can be used for good and to make life easier. Tracking devices, for cars or anything else, have plenty of legitimate uses.
In recent years, GPS trackers have been increasingly used by insurance providers to implement telematics programs that monitor the road safety habits (or lack thereof) of drivers to see if they qualify for safe driving discounts. While some states, such as California, outlaw these programs based on privacy concerns, drivers in most states have the option to download apps or install devices from their car insurance companies to help obtain discounts on their car insurance. These devices or apps gather critical information, such as how hard a driver brakes and accelerates, to help the insurance company assess the risk posed by the driver and adjust their rates accordingly. The information gathered by these types of trackers not only helps determine if a discount is available, but provides valuable feedback to the driver (or their parents if its a teen driver) about their driving habits and things they can do to improve their safety on the road. Telematics programs are entirely voluntary.
Onboard vehicle systems
Car companies also use these same types of GPS tracker apps to detect crashes or provide the location of customers who might be in dangerous situations. Onboard vehicle systems like Onstar help ensure that someone who has been in an accident or is in danger can get help quickly.
Law enforcement also use these devices to gather information related to crimes. There are many examples of law enforcement using GPS trackers to help prevent crime or help catch criminals, especially related to incidents of burglary and robbery.
Places of employment
Employers who operate a fleet of vehicles will also most likely use some sort of GPS tracking system. This is to protect both the company’s investment in the vehicle and the safety of the employee. GPS monitoring allows the employer to verify if expenses that are submitted are legitimate, especially ones related to travel. It also provides useful data to the employer for information related to driving routes, time on the road, fuel consumption and necessary travel.
Rental car companies
Rental car companies also use these types of devices to keep track of their fleet. Being able to track its vehicles can not only help guard against stolen vehicles or vehicles that are taken into an unauthorized area, but also to provide better customer service for people whose rental cars break down and need assistance getting back on the road.
What trackers are not meant for
Along with the many positive uses for GPS trackers, there can also be a downside to these devices. There are increasing stories in the news about situations where trackers are being used to commit crimes such as domestic violence or stalking. Some people have even taken to referring to tracking devices as ‘stalkerware.’ This type of unauthorized tracking could be especially dangerous for more vulnerable people who may not be aware of the technology or how easy it is for someone to install a GPS tracker on their vehicle.
Is there a tracker on my car?
Since these devices are small, almost any driver could be vulnerable to an unwanted GPS tracking device being placed on their car, but there are steps you can take to better protect yourself and your privacy from unwanted tracking.
- Educate yourself about what a GPS tracker looks like: GPS trackers can be small, tag-like devices or larger boxes. Apple AirTags or Tile squares are quite compact, barely measuring over an inch tall. There are also GPS trackers that come in larger black boxes. These boxes may measure two or three inches on each side. These are battery-operated so they are larger in size.
- Know where to look: GPS trackers can be found on either the exterior or interior of the vehicle. Common places are ones that are easily accessible but not easily seen, such as the edge of the car, undercarriage, bumper and truck bed, seats, wheel wells or behind the license plate. If you’re checking for this be sure to be extremely thorough and overly cautious.
- Get assistance: You can use mirrors, flashlights and electronic sweepers (like a bug detector) to help you pinpoint GPS trackers around your car. If you still can’t locate it, you might want to consider enlisting the help of a professional. There are technicians who specialize in car security and might have extensive knowledge about GPS trackers or other security devices.If you have an Apple device, you can use its “Find My” feature to scan for unknown Apple AirTags that may be tracking you. AirTags are also designed to beep if separated from its home device for too long, although users have complained that the beeping is hard to hear.
What to do if stalkerware is found
If you do find a GPS tracker on your vehicle you should be able to remove it yourself without issue. You can typically pull it loose, since these devices are usually held on simply by magnets or tape. The bigger question is likely “what do I do?” if you find an unauthorized tracking device on your vehicle or person.
Fortunately, Apple does seem to be open to working with law enforcement to assist in cases where unwanted tracking has taken place with its devices. The company has stated it will make information available about the source of the tracker when it has been presented with a “valid legal process,” meaning that if you file a police report and can show that you have been being tracked by one of its devices, you may be able to get help from the company in tracking down the offender.
When to contact law enforcement
So what do you do next if you discover someone is using Apple Air Tags or other devices to track you without your knowledge or consent? Keep in mind, there could be situations where you find a tracking device and it’s completely harmless, such as a parent placing a tracker in a child’s car to keep track of their location, or an employer installing one on a company vehicle. But if you aren’t sure and can’t easily find a good explanation, it might be a good idea to act out of an abundance of caution, which means you might want to contact law enforcement for additional help.
Before you contact law enforcement, it’s a good idea to preserve your personal safety first and foremost. If you can avoid it, don’t drive the vehicle you found the tracking device on in case there are additional tracking devices. Take extra steps to find alternative transportation, whether it’s with another family member, a trusted friend or rideshare until you can ensure that you are no longer being tracked. If you feel the unauthorized device indicates a physical threat to you or your loved ones, you might also want to consider temporarily relocating to a trusted friend or family member’s home until the matter is resolved.
Once you’ve reported the unauthorized tracker, you might have the option to press charges, but keep in mind that it will be crucial for you to work with law enforcement to collect as much evidence as possible. If you are able to discontinue driving the vehicle immediately, don’t touch the device at all and let the police examine it in place. If that’s not possible, take pictures of the tracking device in place before removing it. And if you’ve enlisted the help of someone else to find devices, ask them if they are willing to go on the record about what they’ve found.
If you find an Apple Air Tag and are concerned it was used for stalking or unwanted tracking purposes, then you will need the device’s serial number. Fortunately, you can find this by using the “Find My” app. If you physically have the Apple AirTag, then you should be able to locate it by inspecting the tag yourself under the battery. The police will also likely want to interview you to see if you know of anyone who might want to track you or if you’ve been harassed in other ways recently.
Ultimately, if you at all feel that your safety or the safety of your loved ones could be in jeopardy, it might be the best course to contact law enforcement.
There are also other resources in addition to law enforcement that you can utilize if you are the victim of stalking or domestic violence, including:
- The National Domestic Violence Hotline
- The National Center for Victims of Crime
- National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women
- Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project (DV LEAP)
- Stalking Resource Center
There are numerous scenarios where you might consent to having a GPS tracker placed on your vehicle. However, the rise of tracking devices like the Tile or Apple Air Tag have made it possible for GPS tracking to be used for dangerous purposes, too. The news and social media are filling up with stories about people who have been the victims of unauthorized tracking devices.
All of these incidents can seem scary, but if you remain aware and diligent about checking yourself and your vehicle for devices, particularly if you’ve been around people you don’t know or who might pose a threat to your safety, you can help keep yourself and your family safe. If you suspect you are a victim of unwanted tracking, get yourself to safety and reach out to local law enforcement.