Car Thieves Are Using AirTags to Track and Steal High-End Cars | How to Protect Yourself

Apple AirTag in Keychain Case Credit: Dreii / Shutterstock
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It would appear that stalking of your person isn’t the only way for criminals to misuse Apple’s AirTags — a new report from a police agency in Canada reveals that thieves have also been using AirTags to steal cars.

Investigators with the York Regional Police Auto/Cargo Theft Unit issued a bulletin yesterday sharing their discovery that Apple’s AirTags have been used in at least five incidents to steal high-end vehicles (via CTV News / iPhone in Canada).

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York Region is part of the Greater Toronto Area, located just north of the main city of Toronto. It includes the cities of Richmond Hill, Vaughan, and Markham — the latter of which was the home of Apple’s Canadian head office for well over a decade until it moved into downtown Toronto in early 2015. It’s home to approximately 1.1 million people.

Since it’s difficult to break into a car in a public place like a mall parking lot, thieves plant AirTags on a target vehicle, which they can then use to track the car back to the owner’s residence, where they can steal it right from their driveway under cover of darkness.

Since September 2021, officers have investigated five incidents where suspects have placed small tracking devices on high-end vehicles, so they can later locate and steal them. Brand name ‘air tags’ are placed in out-of-sight areas of the target vehicles when they are parked in public places like malls or parking lots. Thieves then track the targeted vehicles to the victim’s residence, where they are stolen from the driveway. York Regional Police

The AirTags are placed in out of sight areas, such as tailer hitch openings, and the police advisory includes photos of at least one vehicle where an AirTag was found.

YRP Detective Jeff McKercher says his team has found AirTags used in at least five incidents since September. He notes that they’ve been found in the gas cap canister and components of the vehicle’s towing systems, such as the trailer hitch, although he adds that thieves “can install them anywhere on the vehicle.”

Notably, neither McKercher nor the YRP press release mention Apple by name, calling them only “Brand name ‘air tags.” However, the photos make it pretty obvious what they’re talking about. McKercher also adds that police are seeing a rising trend in these kinds of cases throughout the GTA, with the most popular target vehicles right now being the Lexus RX 350 and Ford F150.

While McKercher doesn’t explain how these specific incidents came to light, it’s likely the AirTags were discovered by the vehicle’s owners and reported to the police before the thieves had a chance to move in. If that’s the case, it goes to show that Apple’s security measures are working in at least some cases.

How to Protect Yourself

iPhone users will get a warning if an unknown AirTag is found moving with them, along with instructions to help them locate it and disable it.

This is also expected to improve further in iOS 15.2, which will offer an option to actively scan for unknown AirTags nearby, so you won’t have to wait for a notification to find out if an unwelcome AirTag has been stashed in your bag or somewhere on your vehicle.

Note that you’ll only get these unknown AirTag notifications if you’re running iOS 14.5 or later, so it’s important to make sure your iPhone is up-to-date.

Unfortunately, these safety measures don’t apply to Android users — at least not yet. Apple says it’s working on an AirTag app for Android, but this will still only help those who take the time to install it from the Google Play Store, as it’s unlikely to be built into the Android operating system.

Although an AirTag will sound an audible alert after it’s been separated from its paired iPhone for a few hours, there’s a good chance that it’s not going to help prevent this particular scenario. Based on the photos shared by York Regional Police, car thieves have been stashing AirTags in places like the rear bumper, where the driver is very unlikely to hear it chirping away.

Technology aside, however, Detective McKercher also offers some more practical tips on how to avoid becoming a victim of car theft:

  1. Park your vehicle in a locked garage. Most vehicles are stolen from a driveway, and thieves generally want to get in and out as quickly as they can. If parking it inside isn’t possible, moving it deeper into your driveway and parking another car behind it — presumably, one that’s a less appealing target — can also be a good deterrent.
  2. Use a steering wheel lock. This often acts as a visible deterrent to discourage would-be car thieves from even trying to steal your car in the first place.
  3. Install a lock on the data port in your vehicle. This is usually located underneath the dash, and it’s the vulnerable point where thieves “digitally hot-wire” the car by reprogramming the settings to accept the thieves’ own key as valid. After that, they simply start the car using their key and drive it away.
  4. Purchase a quality video surveillance system, and ensure that it’s properly placed and suitable for both day and night use.
  5. Inspect your vehicle regularly, checking those places where an AirTag could potentially be stashed. If you find anything suspicious, don’t just throw it away — contact the police.

If you ever do happen to find an unknown AirTag nearby and suspect it’s being used for nefarious purposes, you should definitely report it to law enforcement. Each AirTag has a serial number that can be traced back to the Apple ID that’s being used to track it, and Apple has said that it can and will work with law enforcement to assist in these cases.

The York Regional Police note that over 2,000 vehicles have been stolen in the region over the past year, although 350 have been recovered, with more than 100 arrests. Despite this, police agencies report a rise in vehicle theft throughout the Greater Toronto Area, and thieves are constantly developing new methods to facilitate these thefts.

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