Bluetooth Tracking Dangers: How to Protect Yourself and Your Property

First Republic Bank
June 29, 2022

  • Criminals have begun using Apple AirTags and Tile tracking devices for nefarious purposes, including stalking and vehicle theft.
  • Bluetooth trackers are small enough for easy concealment, and their long-lasting batteries are conducive to unsavory use.
  • Various smartphone apps and integrated smartphone Bluetooth scanning features have been developed to help you avoid unwanted tracking.

Though they’re manufactured merely to make life a bit easier, Apple AirTags, Tile and other similar finder devices have found a place in the hands of bad actors.

Their primary purpose is to help you find commonly misplaced possessions, like keys and wallets, but criminals have harnessed these trackers for less savory functions — including stalking and stealing cars, according to The New York Times.

Here, explore how these threats manifest, how you can avoid them and how tracking device manufacturers have improved the security of these devices.

What are Bluetooth trackers and how do they work?

Often described as Bluetooth trackers or key finders, Apple AirTags and Tile (plus other devices of their ilk) are different from more traditional tracking devices, which tend to rely heavily on GPS technology and use far more battery power. Instead, Bluetooth trackers leverage the mesh network of cell phones all around us, using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), ultra-wideband (UWB) and other similar technologies to deliver easy tracking capabilities to anyone with a smartphone.

These features provide highly accurate location information, often to within inches of the tracker’s actual location, and with little more than the tap of a button. Each device’s corresponding mobile app does the rest of the work. The tracking device will even emit a sound to help you find it.

Modern Bluetooth trackers are compact for unobtrusive use, and their maximum range can span from a few hundred feet (in Tile’s case) to virtually limitless. AirTags, for example, use Apple’s Find My technology, which allows AirTag users to locate their tag(s) as long as they’re close enough to another Apple device.

These trackers tend to use very little battery power, too, allowing them to run on a single battery for several months or more. Some even have specialized features, such as those that are shaped like credit cards to easily slip into a wallet.

How do trackers pose a safety threat?

While Bluetooth trackers are undeniably convenient, this convenience is a double-edged sword. 
Discreet sizing allows criminals to slip their own AirTags and Tile trackers where you may never find them (in your vehicle or a seldom-used bag pocket, for example), and long-lasting batteries make it simple to track you without quickly losing power. This ultimately poses a threat not only to your property but to your physical safety, as well.

Very real examples of these dangers include a Houston mother who was stalked by her ex-husband via Tile, as reported by KPRC 2, and the use of Apple AirTags to steal cars in Ontario, as reported by Newsweek.

How have tracker manufacturers addressed security concerns?

The severity of the misuse of Bluetooth trackers has prompted manufacturers to act relatively quickly to develop safety-enhancing improvements. Both Apple and Tile have published statements detailing their awareness of the issue and the steps they have taken (or plan to take) to help curb this misuse. These measures include — but aren’t limited to — Tile’s Scan and Secure app feature, as well as Apple’s improved unwanted tracking alerts and privacy updates.

For example, if another person’s AirTag is nearby, your iPhone should register the device and inform you of its presence. If you still can’t find it, the AirTag will eventually emit a sound so it’s easier to locate. These alerts only occur if the AirTag is separated from its owner, however, so you don’t have to worry about receiving several alerts every time you’re in a crowded, public area, where various people might own an AirTag. 

While these are helpful additions, fraudsters will likely continue to find vulnerabilities within these product updates. As a consumer it’s important to be mindful of the risks they pose and protect yourself accordingly.

How to protect yourself from trackers

Keeping an eye out for tracker red flags, using general caution and taking advantage of useful tech, like tracker detection smartphone apps, should make it easier to avoid the dangers of tracker-related crimes.

  • Listen for beeping: An AirTag will beep if it’s been separated from its paired device for a certain amount of time.
  • Look for notifications: Apple devices provide security alerts — “Unknown device detected near you” or something similar — if a nearby tracking device is detected. Tapping this notification should allow you to track the device. This feature may have to be turned on manually in the device’s settings.
  • Use tracker detection apps: Reputable tracker detection apps can help identify unwanted nearby tracking devices.
  • Update your phone: Operating system and app updates ensure that your device has the latest security features.

Contact law enforcement, if warranted: Reach out to the police if you believe a crime has been committed.

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