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Apple AirTags used to stalk people, police reports show

WRTV Investigates filed records requests and found unwanted tracking
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Posted at 4:45 PM, Oct 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-06 18:26:44-04

INDIANAPOLIS — Tracking devices like Apple AirTags are a great way to find your lost wallet, keys or even your child’s backpack.

But through a public records request, WRTV Investigates uncovered that the trackers are also being used for a more sinister purpose— to track people.

WRTV Investigates looked into what you can do to find out if someone is tracking you.

'It was terrifying': Stalking victim describes fear

Dawn Hillyer of Kendallville was tormented for six years by a stalker.

"He came on like a freight train,” Hillyer said. “It was constant. Coming over, following, coming after me and my family and anybody around me."

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Hillyer said her stalker always seemed to know where she was.

“The police found a little GPS on the back of my car,” Hillyer said. “I had no idea that it was on there. It was terrifying, and life-altering.”

Hillyer’s stalker was sentenced to 10 years in prison back in 2012.

Since then, tracking technology has greatly advanced with products like Tile and Apple AirTags, which are not much bigger than a quarter and cost about $30 each.

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They can help you find lost items like keys, wallets, purses, backpacks and luggage.

Police Reports Show Incidents Across Central Indiana

WRTV Investigates filed public records requests with police departments throughout central Indiana, and we found a dozen reports involving unwanted tracking.

In Kokomo, a woman told police her ex-fiancé used Find My iPhone to track her location.

A Noblesville woman told officers someone put an Apple AirTag on her car, and she believed her ex-husband was responsible.

Greenfield police has received three reports from people with concerns about an AirTag tracking them.

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In Lawrence, police recovered GPS devices from a woman’s car after she reported her ex was tracking her.

Westfield police provided a report showing a woman called police after receiving an alert on her phone that an AirTag was nearby.

'Soft-spoken' man killed after tracked with AirTag, prosecutors say

In Indianapolis, Marion County prosecutors say Andre Smith’s ex-girlfriend used an Apple AirTag to track Smith to Tilly’s Pub.

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“It’s mind-boggling, and it’s creepy,” Reneka Day, the aunt of Andre Smith, said. “He was 26 years old. Very humble and soft-spoken.”

Court records allege Smith’s ex-girlfriend ran him over with her car in Tilly’s Pub parking lot, killing him.

“She shouldn't have been able to find him at all,” Day said. “They need to do something about it, because it's causing more crime than it is helpful to the public."

Day said Apple AirTags and other tracking devices should not be for sale for the general public.

“If you’re using it for law enforcement or medical purposes, yes, but it should not be available on Amazon for the public to purchase and use,” Day said.

Testing out the iPhone’s notification system

In a statement, Apple emphasized its AirTags should not be used to track people.

“AirTag was designed to help people locate their personal belongings, not to track people or another person’s property, and we condemn in the strongest possible terms any malicious use of our products,” the Apple statement read. “Unwanted tracking has long been a societal problem, and we took this concern seriously in the design of AirTag. It’s why the Find My network is built with privacy in mind, uses end-to-end encryption, and why we innovated with the first-ever proactive system to alert you of unwanted tracking.”

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WRTV Investigates decided to put Apple’s alert system to the test.

We spent $100 on a four-pack of AirTags and found four WRTV employees who agreed to be tracked.

When WRTV activated the AirTag, we received a message reminding us “AirTag is intended solely to track items that belong to you. Using AirTag to track people without their consent is a crime in many regions around the world.”

We tracked Rachael, Andrew, Katie and Brittany as they worked and drove around.

Five hours after we placed the device, Rachael got an alert on her iPhone that an AirTag was nearby, but she didn’t get the alert until after she’d arrived home.

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Same thing happened to Katie, who got a notification at home after six hours of being tracked.

Andrew’s iPhone did not notify him until 24 hours later.

Brittany’s Android phone did not warn her about the AirTag, until she downloaded the “Tracker Detect” app.

Once they received alerts, our WRTV employees could press “Play Sound.”

This allows you to find the AirTag and notify the police, if necessary.

An iPhone running iOS 14.5 or later can recognize if an AirTag is traveling with you over time and will send you a proactive alert when you arrive home—as defined in your contacts “Me” card—or your iPhone will recognize you’re home based on your travel patterns.

Apple says you should still be alerted at the end of the day, even if you happen to be away from home.

'We see phones as tracking devices': Domestic violence shelter weighs in

Sheltering Wings in Danville is the second largest domestic violence shelter in the state which houses 50 men, women and children.

Program director Jenny Kinnaman said they aim to keep up with tracking technology in order to protect their residents from unwanted tracking.

“What we really see is phones as a tracking device,” Kinnaman said. “That can be as simple as Find My iPhone.”

The shelter helps victims stop unwanted tracking including turning off location services on their phones.

“Once they're in a safe place, we also don't want their devices tracking them so they can’t be found,” Kinnaman said. “We have people who come in with four phones because none of them is safe. They've all been compromised at some point.”

The shelter can also help victims get a new phone that is not tied to their abuser.

“That is part of our service that we can offer and help people get their sense of safety back,” Kinnaman said.

Protecting yourself from unwanted tracking

Stalking victim Dawn Hillyer took back her safety.

She started her own business, Hiding Hilda, which sells conceal carry purses and teaches self-defense.

Hillyer turns off location services on her phone, something you can do as well if you’re worried about being tracked.

"You gotta pay attention,” Hillyer said. “It's scary. It's a scary world."

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1- 800-799-7233.

Apple says it’s made improvements to AirTags

Tile did not respond to WRTV’s request for comment.

However, the tracking device company did release its own anti-stalking update to its mobile app earlier this year.

An Apple spokesperson confirmed to WRTV they’ve made the following updates:

  • New privacy warnings during AirTag setup: Every user setting up their AirTag for the first time will see a message that clearly states that AirTag is meant to track their own belongings, that using AirTag to track people without consent is a crime in many regions around the world, that AirTag is designed to be detected by victims, and that law enforcement can request identifying information about the owner of the AirTag.
  • Addressing alert issues for AirPods: Apple has heard from users who have reported receiving an “Unknown Accessory Detected” alert. Apple confirmed this alert will not display if an AirTag is detected near you — only AirPods (3rd generation), AirPods Pro, AirPods Max, or a third-party Find My network accessory. In the same software update, Apple will be updating the alert users receive to indicate that AirPods have been traveling with them instead of an “Unknown Accessory.”
  • Updated support documentation: Apple updated its unwanted tracking support article[support.apple.com] on apple.com [apple.com] to communicate the safety features built into AirTag, AirPods, and Find My network accessories. This page now includes additional explanations of which Find My accessories may trigger an unwanted tracking alert, more visuals to provide specific examples of such alerts, and updated information on what to do after receiving an alert, including instructions for disabling an AirTag, AirPods, or Find My network accessory.
  • Tuning AirTag’s sound: Apple adjusted the tone sequence to use more of the loudest tones to make an unknown AirTag more easily findable.

More Information from Apple on Preventing Unwanted Tracking

If any AirTag, AirPods, or other Find My network accessory separated from its owner is seen moving with you over time, you'll be notified in one of two ways. These features were created specifically to discourage people from trying to track you without your knowledge.

  • If you have an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, Find My will send a notification to your Apple device. This feature is available on iOS or iPadOS 14.5 or later. To receive alerts, make sure that you:
    • Go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services, and turn Location Services on.
    • Go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services > System Services. Turn Find My iPhone on.
    • Go to Settings > Privacy > Location Services > System Services. Turn Significant Locations on to be notified when you arrive at a significant location, such as your home. 
    • Go to Settings > Bluetooth, and turn Bluetooth on. 
    • Go to the Find My app, tap the Me tab, and turn Tracking Notifications on.
    • Turn off airplane mode. If your device is in airplane mode, you won't receive tracking notifications.
  • If you don't have an iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch, an AirTag that isn't with its owner for a period of time will emit a sound when it's moved. This type of notification isn't supported with AirPods.

For more information on how to prevent unwanted tracking with AirTags, click here.

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