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We keep hearing so many reports about how AirTags can be used for sinister purposes that it’s easy to forget how useful they are for the purpose Apple actually designed them for: helping you find your stuff.
Apple doesn’t condone the use of AirTags for locating stolen property, likely due to the risks of people taking matters into their own hands. However, if you handle it properly, AirTags can be a great way to recover expensive items that have been stolen.
Last month, we saw this when an Australian photographer got back $7,000 in stolen gear thanks to the AirTags attached to his camera and laptop. However, the victim, Graham Tait, did the responsible thing and contacted law enforcement rather than trying to confront the thieves on his own.
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Now, another great story from Toronto shows how a man recovered his stolen vehicle thanks to the AirTags that he had stowed inside.
We know that thieves are using high-tech technology to steal cars, but in this case, the victim used the same technology to get his car back.John Musselman, CTV News
The Toronto man, who lives in the affluent uptown Avenue and Lawrence area, has had the misfortune of having not one but two Range Rovers stolen from his driveway in the past two months.
Early in the morning, I wake up and my kids are “Daddy, daddy, your car’s gone.”
The news report showed security footage from last Thursday of the thieves driving away with his replacement Range Rover.
After the first theft, the owner, who asked not to be identified, cleverly placed three AirTags inside his car.
One in the glove box, which I sort of used as my decoy, figuring that if someone were to find it they would throw it out and think that that’s all there was, but I had one embedded behind the back seats, and I had one in the trunk in my spare tire.
This turned out to be a good idea, as the thieves found the one in the glove box but completely missed the other two. The man was able to track the vehicle to an industrial location in Scarborough on the east side of Toronto.
However, once he had pinpointed his vehicle’s location using the Find My app, he immediately contacted the police before even visiting the location.
I showed them on my phone where my car was, and one hour later, three officers met me there, and I took out my key, which I brought with me, pressed my panic button, and whaddya know? My alarm was going off.
The victim’s car was one of nine cars that had been stolen and taken to the same location. Toronto police have confirmed to CTV News that they successfully recovered the man’s vehicle but won’t comment further as it’s an ongoing investigation.
Musselman adds that car thieves can also use these locator tags, echoing a report we shared in December from police in York Region, a suburb north of Toronto. Car thieves now commonly go “shopping” for vehicles they want in a mall parking lot and hide AirTags on them. The perpetrators can then track those vehicles to their driveways, where they can be more easily stolen late at night.
That’s not just about the desire to work under cover of darkness. Most car thieves rely on relay attacks that read the key fob from inside the owner’s house. That’s much harder to do in a mall parking lot, as the owner will be much farther away.
The CTV News report showed video footage of how brazen some of these relay attacks are, with a thief standing directly in front of the house waving electronic scanning equipment over the front door to try and pick up a key fob.
It’s difficult to say to what extent AirTags are being used in organized car theft rings, as many of the initial thefts are done by “contractors” — independent small-time thieves who simply nab the cars and drop them off at a collection point. In an ironic twist, the Toronto Star’s Chief Investigative Reporter, Kevin Donovan, had his Toyota Highlander stolen from his driveway last year.
In investigating the incident (Apple News+), Donovan learned quite a bit about how these theft rings operate, noting that his car appeared to have been taken to a nearby parkette by a group of thieves who had “more cars to steal before the sun rose.”
The thieves who dropped the Toyota beside the parkette most likely left, police and insurance investigators say. Their job was done and they likely had more cars to steal before the sun rose. The two key fobs were left in the Toyota for a different crew.Kevin Donovan, Toronto Star Chief Investigative Reporter
The organized rings of criminals behind these professional car thefts typically pay small-time operators a few hundred bucks for each car they can deliver, so the thieves taking the cars are incentivized to nab as many as possible. Pre-tagging their targets with AirTags allows these thieves to grab as many as they can in one night, significantly increasing their take. Donovan notes that these crews work in “steal to order” rings, prowling cities in an organized fashion.
Fortunately, Donovan’s story also had somewhat of a happy ending. Police tracked the Star reporter’s Highlander to the Canadian port city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, where it was found in a massive container ship with 29 other vehicles destined for Dubai.
While AirTags can be very useful for tracking down a stolen vehicle, it’s better to prevent that from happening in the first place. Musselman, Donovan, and law enforcement officials all agree that the most important ways to protect against theft are the low-tech solutions:
- Keep your car in a garage. Most vehicles are stolen from a driveway, and organized car thieves are in the volume business since they’re paid by the car. Even if they track your vehicle to your home with an AirTag, dealing with a locked garage should be enough of a deterrent to encourage them to move on to the next target rather than wasting precious time trying to break into your garage.
- Park your vehicle as inaccessibly as possible. If you don’t have a garage, parking deeper into your driveway and parking another less attractive car behind your more expensive one will also be a good deterrent for the same reason.
- Keep your wireless key fob in a shielded “Faraday” security pouch. Since many thefts rely on scanning your key fob from inside your home, blocking these signals will make the job much more difficult for thieves. These can be purchased on Amazon for as little as $15.
- Lock your vehicle’s data port. Keeping your key fob in a shielded pouch may not be enough. As Donovan learned in his investigation, some car models are more susceptible to reprogramming attacks, where thieves can “digitally hot-wire” a car to accept a new key fob, just like your dealer would if you legitimately lost your fob and had to get a replacement.
- Use a steering wheel lock. Sometimes, the simplest solutions are the best, and a classic bright red lock like The Club can be a visible deterrent to encourage thieves to skip your car and move on.
To be clear, police investigators and insurance adjusters all agree that if thieves want your car, they’ll find a way to get it. However, that doesn’t mean you should make it easy for them. In most cases, time is money for these crooks, so you want to make it as much of a hassle as possible for a thief to get at your car.