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January 18, 2022

Woman stalked with Apple AirTag device in Montgomery County, police say

The incident in Lower Providence Township is part of a growing pattern seen by law enforcement agencies across the U.S.

Apple's popular AirTag tracking devices are touted as a way to prevent the loss of essential items like keys, wallets, vehicles and other personal items that tend to be easily misplaced.

But in the months since the button-sized devices debuted last year, there has been a disturbing rise in their use by criminals to stalk potential victims who have had AirTags secretly placed on their property.

The Lower Providence Police Department in Montgomery County reported this week that a woman had an unnerving encounter with an apparent stalker using AirTags last Friday. 

The woman told police she had attended a movie at the Movie Tavern in Upper Providence and had returned home around 8:45 p.m. She received a message from Apple on her iPhone.

"Unknown Accessory Detected," the message said. "This Item Has Been Moving With You For A While."

When the woman went inside her home, she received another, more alarming message.

"Safety Alert, Your Location Can Be Seen By The Owner of This Item," the second message said. "You May Be Carrying This Item, Or It Could Be Located Closely. If This Item Is Not Familiar To You, You Can Disable It And Stop Sharing Your Location."

When the woman viewed a map associated with the AirTag's tracking, she found that it had been activated near the Movie Tavern and then followed her until she returned home around 8:38. The woman looked out her window and observed an unknown vehicle sitting just down the road from her home, police said.

The woman approached the vehicle and it slowly drove away, according to investigators.

A few moments later, the woman received another alert from Apple notifying her that the device was driving eastbound. Shortly afterward, the device was disconnected when the car was out of sight.

"Unfortunately, criminals are starting to use this technology for several reasons such as stalking purposes or to track vehicles they want to steal," said Lower Providence Police Chief Michael Jackson. "The battery life of an Apple AirTag can last for more than a year before needing to be replaced. Even though Apple AirTags are designed to discourage unwanted tracking, it can still occur."

Authorities described the vehicle in the Montgomery County incident as an older model, light grey or silver hatchback that may have been a Subaru. The investigation remains ongoing.

News reports from across the country have recounted similar stories of stalking with AirTags in recent months.

A model in New York City reported last week that she found an AirTag that had been slipped into her coat pocket while she was at a bar. She received the same alerts from Apple that the woman in Lower Providence got on her phone.

Police departments across the country have responded to apparent stalking incidents involving AirTags, which can be purchased cheaply for $29 each on Apple's website.

In response to the growing number of reports, Apple has implemented new safety features and has said the company is committed to ensuring public safety.

The first change Apple made is a software update that automatically prompts an AirTag to play a sound if it's away from its owner for too long. Last June, Apple shortened that period from three days to a randomized time between eight and 24 hours.

The company's second change concerns how the misuse of AirTags can affect owners of Android phones, who do not receive the same alerts as iPhone users when they are unwittingly followed using these planted devices. This month, Apple released an Android app called Tracker Detect that users can download in order to receive notifications. The app is compatible with Apple's "Find My" app.

Both changes have been criticized for failing to fully close the loopholes stalkers can exploit, such as removing the speaker inside of an AirTag or taking advantage of Android users who either don't download the app or don't check it for updates.

"We take customer safety very seriously and are committed to AirTag’s privacy and security," an Apple spokesperson said Tuesday. "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.”

The company spokesperson said Apple will continue to make security improvements and has provided a tips page for users to consult if they receive an unexpected AirTag alert.

All AirTag devices are registered to the owner's unique Apple ID, making it possible for the company to provide such information to police if they have a valid legal request, such as a subpoena. Many law enforcement agencies are unable to make such requests without sufficient evidence of a crime, and potential victims may not have the funds to secure a lawyer who can investigate an apparent stalking case.

Beyond external criminal threats, AirTags also are increasingly a concern for people in abusive relationships, who may have their movements tracked by a threatening partner.

Lower Providence Township police are urging the public to be on guard about possible stalking attempts that use AirTags and other tracking devices.

"We urge everyone to be vigilant of their surroundings and if you get a notification like the one reported in this incident, call 911 immediately," Jackson said.

Anyone with information that may help investigators in the Lower Providence Township incident is asked to call police at (610) 539-5901.