Kimberly Scroop had finished a workout at her local gym and was driving home when the strange alert first rang on her iPhone.
“AirTag detected near you,” the notification reads.
It was 10:30 p.m. and she had almost reached her apartment in Arizona, where she lived alone.
She knew what an AirTag was, a Bluetooth-enabled device no bigger than a 20-cent coin that can track the location of an object.
But there was no good reason for him to ping his phone.
“So I captured it and threw it out,” Scroop told 9news.com.au.
But when she entered her flat and the alert flashed again, a growing sense of panic set in.
“I started going through my stuff,” she said.
Scroop rummaged through his gym bag. She checked the pockets of her clothes. She removed the soles of her shoes.
“I was just trying to check anywhere, really, because it’s small and magnetic. So I was checking everywhere.”
Empty-handed, she got out and started “wrecking my car.”
When the search turned up nothing, she called her stepfather and asked him what to do.
“He didn’t know what it was. So he was like, ‘It can’t be that bad,'” she said.
“And I was like, ‘No, you don’t understand, this is terrifying.
“I was trying to tell him how serious it was.
Scroop kept searching, but eventually she gave up.
The next morning, she went straight to the local police station.
She explained what happened and showed an officer the notifications, but they told her that no crime had been committed and nothing illegal was happening.
“Because I didn’t know who did it…when it was put on me or where it was, they couldn’t do anything for me, basically,” she said.
Scroop said the front desk officer asked her what they expected her to do, given that she couldn’t tell them anything more about the device or its notification.
“It was just A1 policing.”
Exasperated, Scroop left and went to a tire shop.
A helpful mechanic looked under the rims and searched the car but found nothing.
Launched by Apple last year, AirTags were intended to help users keep track of their keys, wallet and other essentials.
Samsung doesn’t sell the Galaxy SmartTag in Australia, but it can be purchased from Amazon for just $41.
Tile sells its Bluetooth tracker for $39.95.
But the technology, which is undoubtedly useful, can also very easily be misused by nefarious predators and abusive partners.
Misuse in Australia is at a very nascent stage.
But police and domestic violence organizations have told 9news.com.au that cases of harassment with a tracking device are on the rise.
Their fears have been detailed in this special three-part investigation.
Stalker ‘can watch my every move’
Several international celebrities and models who have been targeted and stalked have tried to raise awareness of the problem, and how disturbingly easy it was for offenders to ambush them, as Scroop was.
Earlier this year, 26-year-old Sports Illustrated model Brooks Nader claimed a stranger slipped an Apple AirTag tracker into her coat pocket and tracked her for five hours.
Later, while driving home alone at 11:30 p.m., she received an AirTag notification warning her that an accessory had been detected on her.
Nader’s experience highlighted just how vulnerable a victim can be.
Like Scroop, Wild was unable to find the device and called the police for help.
“I got in my car to go home at 2:30 a.m. last night and someone had put a tracker on my car,” she said.
“My phone informed me of this, but by the time I realized what was happening I had driven to my home address, which would be visible to the owner of the device.
“So scary to know that someone now knows my home address and can monitor my every move.”
In June, Los Angeles-based Irish actress Hannah Rose May shared how she attended an after-hours event at Disneyland from 11:45 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Before jumping into her car to drive home, she received the unexpected AirTag notification, similar to how Scroop was ambushed by the alert.
“Someone has been stalking me for two hours,” she wrote on Twitter.
The airtags are the size of a coin, she said.
“It’s scary how easy they are to slip into a pocket or purse.
“The happiest place on earth could very easily turn into my worst nightmare.”
Detective Inspector Boris Buick of Victoria’s Cybercrime Squad said anyone who thinks they are being harassed with a tracking device should report it to the police.
“Abusive behaviour, which includes the use of technology to evoke fear and control in victims, is unacceptable,” he told 9news.com.au.
So far there had been “a low number” of reported cases, he said.
The electronic security commissioner said that while Apple has taken steps to build security features into the design of AirTags, it’s “not surprising” that the tracking devices are “armed” by stalkers or abusers.
Commissioner Julie Inman Grant said research has shown technology-facilitated abuse (TFA) is a “widespread and serious problem” in Australia.
“We know that TFA by a current or former partner is almost ubiquitous in family and domestic violence situations, as an extension of surveillance, coercion and control.”
Using technology to surveil or cyber-leave a partner is a “red flag” for physical abuse, Inman Grant said, while warning that perpetrators who choose to commit domestic violence will exploit any available technology.
“It’s important to be aware of the risk posed by any device with tracking capabilities,” she said.
“Trackers can be small and easily hidden, revealing a lot about daily habits, like where someone exercises or when they leave the house.
“The most important advice – especially if someone is worried about being tracked – is to turn off location services on all devices and beware of any tracking items hidden in objects.”
Shaken and changed
Scroop never found the device or solved the mystery of who was tracking her.
She has since moved to San Diego from Arizona, which has helped her feel better.
But as a result of what happened, she was seriously shaken for a while.
“I was shaken,” Scroop said.
She made small changes, like not posting on Snapchat Stories, changing where she would buy her coffee, and delaying social media posts that might have identified that she was in a particular place at a given time. .
She also made some big changes, like buying a new car and changing gyms.
“I didn’t necessarily have any suspects, no ex-boyfriends or anything like that, that I thought was doing something like that.
“The best I can imagine is that someone put it on my car when I was in a parking lot, maybe at the grocery store or at the gym.”
Scroop said she worries the laws haven’t caught up with technology.
“I feel like we have to do something about it.”
“Based on our knowledge and discussions with law enforcement, incidents of AirTag misuse are rare; however, each instance is one too many,” the company’s website states.
Apple works closely with security groups and law enforcement.
“Through our own assessments and these discussions, we’ve identified even more ways to update AirTag security warnings and protect against further unwanted tracking,” the website said.
Apple declined to comment when contacted by 9news.com.au
A Tile spokesperson told 9news.com.au that it offers a feature on its downloaded app that can detect unknown Tiles, but acknowledged the limitations of these specific actions.
“To address the broader problem of large-scale harassment, there must be an industry-wide solution built into the platform to provide relief to the consumer,” the spokesperson said.
“We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with other companies and strive to start those conversations.”
If you are the target of abuse, don’t try to handle it alone. If you feel unsafe, contact the police on 000 or call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).