'Weapon of choice': Americans on alert as tech-savvy criminals use tracking device to stalk, steal

The technology has 'become the weapon of choice of stalkers and abusers,' a recent lawsuit against Apple argues

Strange chirping sounds and alerts on iPhones have put some Americans on high alert over the last year and a half as they try to figure out why an unknown device is tracking their every move. It’s one of the latest crime trends that tech-savvy criminals are using to carry out car thefts and stalkings, which has pushed police departments across the nation to warn residents to watch out for the new tactic. 

"In a traditional stalking case, typically you have people who are making contact or unwanted contact with a victim, repeatedly," Dearborn, Michigan, police Sgt. James Isaacs told Fox 2 earlier this year. "They're following them where they work, where they go to school, where they are going to eat. Using the AirTag is just another way for them to do that in a more surreptitious way."

Dearborn is among the slew of police departments that have warned the public since last year to be on high alert for criminals using Apple AirTags to steal or illegally follow people. 

Apple released AirTags in April of 2021 as the latest way to find lost personal items such as keys or handbags, and billed with the instructions "Ping It. Find It." AirTag owners can clip the small disc-shaped device to something they often misplace, and simply ask Siri to track the AirTag, which has a built-in speaker that chirps when engaged, or use an iPhone to track its exact location. 

APPLE AIRTAGS, MEANT TO HELP YOU TRACK YOUR STUFF, HAVE BECOME TOOLS OF STALKERS AND CRIMINALS

The quarter-sized Apple device allows users to keep track of their personal items via Bluetooth technology.

The quarter-sized Apple device allows users to keep track of their personal items via Bluetooth technology. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

But criminals have turned to the device to carry out plots to stalk their exes or even steal cars. 

Last December, a handful of Nashville women sounded the alarm that they were being followed by suspected criminals based on unknown devices being placed in cars. 

"I was helping a friend move out of her apartment and my car trunk was open and it was unlocked, and I was going in and out with boxes and loads of her things," Ellie Tindall told News 2 last year. 

She said that’s when she believes suspected criminals placed an AirTag in her car. She was alerted to the issue after she got home from helping move her friend and saw an alert on her phone about "an unknown accessory was following" her.

"I went outside to check it out because I saw this on TikTok that this is a thing criminals are doing for robbery or sex trafficking. When I went outside to go look for the tag there was two men in hoodies standing by my car waiting, and the second they saw me open the door with three men they turned around and sprinted down the street," Tindall said.

Another man in Nashville said he kept hearing a chirping sound coming from inside his car in February. His BMW was then stolen, WSMV reported at the time. 

Apple AirTag device on keychain. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Apple AirTag device on keychain. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images) (Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The man’s car was ultimately recovered and its owner, Eric Johnson, was determined to figure out if an AirTag was in the car and potentially behind why the vehicle was stolen. Johnson made the risky move to take a car door apart in search of the tiny device - he then found it inside the door on a small ledge. 

"It was a pretty good feeling to find it and get it out of the car," Johnson said at the time. 

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It is unclear if the AirTag was used to steal the car, but similar stories have played out in other areas of the country, and even abroad. 

One man in Michigan had just purchased a Dodge muscle car last December when he took it out for a spin to run errands at a shopping center and hang out at a friend’s house. 

"When I got out I had a notification on my phone, and it said I was as being tracked by an unknown AirTag," John Nelson told Fox 2 last year.

Nelson said he was able to connect his phone with the AirTag and have it emit a sound. That’s when he found that someone unscrewed a drain cap under his 392 Scat Pack 2018 Charger’s trunk and placed an AirTag. 

"If they want it bad enough, they’re going to take it," Nelson said. 

The crime trend has even spread to Canada, where Toronto authorities warned residents earlier this year of the trend. 

"These little things are being used to mark a vehicle. What thieves are doing is that they’re walking around, ‘shopping’ outside in parking lots, and when they find a car that they like, they stick these to the car or place them on the car somehow," Toronto constable Marco Ricciardi told City News this summer. 

For others, especially women, the use of AirTags by criminals has been terrifying. 

A Cincinnati police officer was sentenced to probation this fall after he pleaded guilty to stalking a woman. Court documents state Darryl Tyus placed an AirTag on the woman’s car and he was able to follow her for weeks without her knowledge. 

Just last week, an Iowa man was arrested and charged after allegedly placing an AirTag on a woman’s car and following her. The victim in the case reportedly was alerted to the AirTag by a phone notification and found the device in a spare tire. The victim then drove the device to a police station in West Des Moines, according to WHO Des Moines. 

Mechanic hands in view as a tire is changed.

Mechanic hands in view as a tire is changed. (iStock)

The suspect, 63-year-old Carl Steven Shawver, then tracked the device to the station and told officers that he placed the device on the car of a woman he claimed was his wife because he believed she was having an affair. At least three AirTags were found on personal belongings of the victim, the local news outlet reported. 

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Court documents state that Shawver and the victim never had a relationship and the victim had blocked Shawver from contacting her. 

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 09: Brooks Nader attends the Revolve Gallery  at Hudson Yards on September 09, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Gotham/WireImage)

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 09: Brooks Nader attends the Revolve Gallery  at Hudson Yards on September 09, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Gotham/WireImage) ( (Photo by Gotham/WireImage))

Swimsuit model Brooks Nader said earlier this year that she was tracked by a stranger who slipped an AirTag into her jacket when she was in New York City. And another woman in the Philadelphia area said an outing to the movie theater turned terrifying when she got home and was alerted on phone that an "Unknown Accessory" had been "Moving With You For A While," the Philly Voice reported in January. 

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"Stalking and stalkerware existed before AirTags, but Apple made it cheaper and easier than ever for abusers and attackers to track their targets," Albert Fox Cahn, executive director at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, told Motherboard earlier this year. "Apple’s global device network gives AirTags unique power to stalk around the world. And Apple’s massive marketing campaign has helped highlight this type of technology to stalkers and abusers who’d never otherwise know about it."

Apple directed Fox News Digital to an update post on its website in February about additional safetyguards the company has taken in light of "reports of bad actors attempting to misuse AirTag for malicious or criminal purposes" and becoming aware "that individuals can receive unwanted tracking alerts for benign reasons."

In addition to working with "various safety groups," Apple is also working with law enforcement departments on crime issues surrounding the devices.  

"Every AirTag has a unique serial number, and paired AirTags are associated with an Apple ID. Apple can provide the paired account details in response to a subpoena or valid request from law enforcement. We have successfully partnered with them on cases where information we provided has been used to trace an AirTag back to the perpetrator, who was then apprehended and charged," Apple says on its website. 

Two women filed a class action suit against Apple earlier this month, claiming AirTags made it easier for them to be stalked and harassed. 

FILE PHOTO: The Apple logo is seen during the preview of the redesigned and reimagined Apple Fifth Avenue store in New York, U.S., September 19, 2019. 

FILE PHOTO: The Apple logo is seen during the preview of the redesigned and reimagined Apple Fifth Avenue store in New York, U.S., September 19, 2019.  (REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo)

"What separates the AirTag from any competitor product is its unparalleled accuracy, ease of use (it fits seamlessly into Apple's existing suite of products), and affordability," the lawsuit says. "With a price point of just $29, it has become the weapon of choice of stalkers and abusers."

One of the plaintiffs in the case said she discovered AirTags on personal belongings months after divorcing her husband. The other plaintiff, identified as Lauren Hughes, said that after breaking up with a man, he began stalking her. After blocking him and living in a hotel to stay safe and anonymous, she was alerted that an AirTag was in her vicinity. 

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"Moreover, there is a gross imbalance between the protections available to iOS/Apple users, versus those available to individuals with Android devices – rendering Android users nearly defenseless to tracking/stalking using an AirTag," the lawsuit says.

Apple told Fox News Digital it does not comment on ongoing litigation when asked about the suit.