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Safety tips for using AirTags and what to do if you think one's tracking you

Sept. 20, 2022
11 min read
Photo of an Apple AirTag against a black background
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TPG has written extensively about Apple AirTags, which many staffers and readers have used — and subsequently praised — to help locate missing suitcases and prevent others from getting lost.

If you are unfamiliar with AirTags, Apple rolled out this Bluetooth tracking device in 2021. The concept is rather simple — you put the AirTag, a disc slightly larger than a quarter, in the item you are interested in tracking, say a suitcase or a purse, and from there, it passively tracks the tagged item.

When a nearby Apple device is detected, like an iPhone or iPad, your AirTag will ping the location of that Apple device and report the location of the AirTag back to the user. You then use the Find My app (available on all corresponding iOS devices) to locate your AirTag.

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Although there's no cellular or GPS chip in the AirTag itself, this process works given the sheer number of nearby iOS devices at a given time.

For example, let's say you lose your keys on the New York subway but you have them tagged with an AirTag. Chances are someone else with an iPhone will be nearby and if your keys are attached to said AirTag, it will ping their location off that iPhone and report the location back to you.

Although Apple promises no personal data is transmitted in the process, the company has responded to privacy and security concerns stemming from this technology, including the devices being linked to stalking people, including travelers.

Related: What it's really like to use Apple's new AirTags to track your luggage

As a female who travels solo for work, safety is always top of mind, which is why a recent post from a female-centric travel group about a woman tracked by an AirTag while traveling on a group tour piqued my concern.

This post served as a concerning, yet necessary, personal safety warning regarding what can happen when technology is abused. It also made me want to find out more about how travelers can protect themselves from this misuse of new technology.

Whether you are a female traveler or a solo traveler in general, here's what to know if you suspect an AirTag may be tracking you.

Can a stranger use an AirTag to track me?

Since their origin, people have warned of AirTags being used to track their whereabouts, including a high-profile case of Sports Illustrated model Brooks Nader.

Earlier this year, she warned her female followers via Instagram after receiving an iPhone alert that the device had been tracking her location after leaving a New York City bar. Once home, she discovered someone had placed an AirTag in her coat pocket, without her consent or knowledge.

Shortly after that post went viral, Apple released an "update on AirTag and unwanted tracking" in February, acknowledging "reports of bad actors attempting to misuse AirTag for malicious or criminal purposes."

Since then, Apple has responded to complaints like these by adding built-in protections to discourage AirTags from being used for unintended purposes such as this, including issuing new privacy warnings during the AirTag setup disclosing that using AirTags to track individuals without consent is a crime in many parts of the world.

Apple also reduced the amount of time it takes to notify an iPhone owner that an unknown AirTag may be traveling with them, from three days to an eight-to-24-hour period, as reported by CNET, a consumer-focused tech publication owned by TPG's parent company, Red Ventures.

Despite this, no tracker device manufacturer has developed a solution to prevent anyone from placing a tracker into an unsuspecting individual's belongings and using it to keep track of their movements. What's worse is that there is little one can do to detect if someone is using a tracking device to do so, says Alison DeNisco Rayome, managing editor at CNET.

Rayome and CNET have reported extensively on the privacy issues surrounding AirTags and similar devices from Samsung and Tile. Although you can't prevent an unwanted tracking situation from initially happening, there are steps you can take to prevent yourself from being further tracked.

Read more: How to track your luggage with Apple AirTags

How to know if you're being tracked by an AirTag and how to disable it

Let's say an AirTag user gets an alert that an AirTag, AirPods or other Find My network accessory is traveling with them.

How do you tell if this is a potentially harmful tracking situation or just an accidental device that is not yours?

To start, Apple says you should follow three steps to find it, which involve checking your Find My app to see if you can play a sound on the unknown accessory.

"If the option to play a sound isn't available, the item might not be with you anymore. Or if it was with you overnight, its identifier might have changed," according to Apple. "Find My uses the identifier to determine that it's the same item moving with you. If the item is within range of its owner, you also won't be able to play a sound."

In its February update, the tech giant also addressed alert issues for AirPods, after users reported receiving an "Unknown Accessory Detected" alert on their phone.

"We’ve heard from users who have reported receiving an 'Unknown Accessory Detected' alert. We’ve confirmed this alert will not display if an AirTag is detected near you — only AirPods (third generation), AirPods Pro, AirPods Max or a third-party Find My network accessory," Apple said at that time. "In the same software update, we will be updating the alert users receive to indicate that AirPods have been traveling with them instead of an 'Unknown Accessory.'"

So if you receive a message that a device is near you that is neither specific to AirPods nor related to a device you have tagged, that may be cause for concern, but you'll want to distinguish the type of alert.

What to do when you think someone may be tracking you

APPLE

"If you find an AirTag after hearing it make a sound, you can use any device that has NFC [near-field communication], such as an iPhone or Android phone, to see if its owner marked it as lost and if you can help return it," per Apple. If it's not lost, Apple advises immediately disabling the AirTag, which will stop sharing its location, which can be done in just a few minutes.

"Push down and twist counterclockwise on the back of the AirTag. Take the cover off and remove the battery," says Apple. "Once you remove the battery, the location of this AirTag is no longer visible to its owner."

For non-Apple users, Rayome suggests downloading the Tracker Detect app, which can also help search for rogue AirTags. A free app available in the Google Play store, Tracker Detect allows Android users to search for and track AirTags using the Find My network as you would on an iOS device. From there, a user can identify any AirTag in question that has been following them for 10-plus minutes.

Given that successfully locating and disabling unknown AirTags is the ideal outcome, your first step should be an exhaustive search for the AirTag, presuming you are not in immediate danger, in which case Apple says to "go to a safe public location and contact law enforcement."

You'll likely need to provide the AirTag or its serial number, which Apple outlines how to locate via the Find My app here, for this to be effective. If you are not in immediate danger, search everywhere for the AirTag, including any bags or pockets you may have with you. If driving a car, be sure to look in places you wouldn't necessarily think to look, like the tires or behind the license plates.

"The most basic form of protection is to manually search yourself and your car for places where an AirTag may have been slipped — the pockets of your clothes or bags, or under cushions, for example," per Rayome.

In addition to the Tracker Detect app, she says people should consider investing in additional Bluetooth trackers, which you can use to scan for nearby AirTags, such as the Bluetooth BLE Device Finder and BLE Scanner, both of which are available from Apple.

Lastly, think about turning off location tracking on your apps unless necessary to use the app. For apps that rely on location services, such as Google Maps, download maps of the areas you plan to visit while on Wi-Fi, which you can then access later on without Wi-Fi or location services turned on.

Bottom line

Although AirTags can be enormously helpful in locating missing items meant to be found, such as luggage, keys or a purse, you'll want to be aware of what to do should an AirTag be used to track something it's not supposed to.

If you are alerted of an unknown AirTag following you, search for the device within your belongings. If you locate it, disable it to prevent it from tracking you further.

If you can't locate the device and are traveling, be sure to warn any relevant parties of a potential tracking situation, such as the local police or the front desk at a hotel.

As always, it's important to be aware of your surroundings, including when using AirTags when traveling. Pay attention to any AirTag alerts and confirm if they are alerting you to your own device.

Featured image by MELINA MARA/THE WASHINGTON POST/GETTY IMAGES
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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  • Intro Offer
    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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  • Annual Fee

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Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

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  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
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  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases