Are you being followed? Apple AirTags used to track people

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — An Apple product is leading to several incidents of stalking and harassment, some of them right here in Memphis.

FOX13 Investigates has been looking into how some are misusing a product known as an AirTag to follow people.

One woman told FOX13 how it happened to her.

It was a Wednesday, relatively early in the evening, when she got home. She had just gone inside when she said she got a notification on her phone that told her she was being tracked.

“My phone notified me that an AirTag had been following me for a while,” she said.

An AirTag is a relatively inexpensive device made by Apple; one costing around $30. We wanted to understand how it works, so we asked University of Memphis professor and technology security expert Dr. Christos Papadopoulos.

“The way AirTags work is by looking for other aid from iPhones in the vicinity. And it could be anybody’s iPhone. And then they anonymously transmit that information back to Apple and eventually back to the owner of the technology,” he said.

It’s a device no larger than a quarter. Apple says it originally designed it to help people track personal items. But our investigation shows that since its release last spring, five people have reported to Memphis Police that they believe they were being harassed, followed, or otherwise stalked using one.

One woman said she found her ex-husband was following her around when she got an alert on her phone telling her an AirTag had been following her vehicle.

Another woman found it was her ex-boyfriend who was stalking her after she said she was notified an AirTag was in her car.

“So I had checked my bags, my you know, my purse, all of that. And I couldn’t find anything. And so I went over by my car. And sure enough, as soon as I got over my car, it immediately connected. So it was somewhere on my car,” a third woman told FOX13.

The AirTag was on her car, tracking her every move: to her job, to the grocery store and to her home — for who knows how long.

“The more time went on, the more fear kind of seeped in a little bit,” she said when asked how seeing the notification pop up on her phone made her feel.

We asked whether she had any idea who would want to track her.

“None whatsoever,” she said. “We tried thinking of people. (I) don’t really have anybody in my life that I think would do that.”

Recent reporting from Vice News shows dozens of cases from eight of the country’s largest police departments where women told police they were being tracked after getting notifications on their phones.

FOX13 Investigates requested records from Memphis Police on the number of reports mentioning an AirTag since the device’s spring 2021 release.

Eight reports came back. Five of them were by people who believed they were being followed.

Marquiepta Odom is executive director of the Memphis YWCA, a group dedicated to helping women facing domestic violence. She said that not too long ago a woman came to her for help with the same issue.

“It creates an issue because if there is someone who is a mass manipulator, controller and very possessive,” she said. “It’s these types of situations — it changes the dynamic of the purpose of the original product.”

“I think the question we need to be asking is, does the utility outweigh the privacy concerns? And I think for most people, if used properly with proper care, then I think the utility is great,” Papadopoulos said.

FOX13 asked the professor how people can protect themselves.

“Apple will warn you when there’s a foreign AirTag that follows you,” she said. “You can use the utilities that Apple gives you with your phone and locate the AirTag, and then if it’s not yours, then you should neutralize it.”

“Just be aware and make sure that if you do see something, immediately call the police because that’s what I did,” the woman with an AirTag on her car said.

The device following her was never found. She was so disturbed by knowing that someone had been tracking her movements that she decided to move to a different part of town.

“So we’re going to pay more in rent now. And it’s a much higher security place that we’re moving to,” she said.

FOX13 reached out to Apple for a response to our reporting.

The company sent a statement that said in part, “… We condemn in the strongest possible terms any malicious use of our products. …[T]he Find My network is built with privacy in mind.”