Leave it to the criminal underworld to come up with new and clever uses for cutting-edge technology. News reports have begun to trickle in that car thieves are using Apple’s newest tracking device to locate cars they want to steal, so they can find them later and pull off a heist. The original reports of this type of activity emanated from Canada, but the practice has now made its way stateside, with the latest account coming from a town just outside of Detroit, Michigan.
According to Jalopnik, a man named John Nelson purchased a brand new and very swanky Dodge Charger and drove it to a shopping mall a few days later. Upon his departure from said mall, Nelson received a surprising notification on his iPhone: An AirTag was nearby. Having not placed any of the devices on anything himself, he was naturally caught off guard by this notification. “I was able to click on that notification and it gave me an option to have the air tag emit a sound and I heard it underneath my vehicle,” Nelson told his local news station.
This follows previous accounts of five vehicles being identified in Canada with AirTags surreptitiously attached to them, which lead the local police department to put out an advisory about the phenomenon. And, in a twist that will surprise precisely nobody, all of the vehicles identified in Canada were of the “high end” variety. That said, there’s more to it than just sticking a tag under someone’s car and then finding it later. This appears to be a tactic used by a sophisticated group of thieves, as they have the resources to reprogram a car’s key once they locate it. As the previous police advisory notes, “Once inside, an electronic device, typically used by mechanics to reprogram the factory setting, is connected to the onboard diagnostics port below the dashboard and programs the vehicle to accept a key the thieves have brought with them. Once the new key is programmed, the vehicle will start and the thieves drive it away.”
Also, Jalopnik writes in its story with the man and his Dodge Charger that he’s lucky he has an iPhone, otherwise he might not have ever realized he was being tracked. However, Apple has rectified this issue by releasing an Android app that will notify you of an AirTag in your proximity. Additionally, in an effort to combat rogue tag-placers, the company has modified the behavior of AirTags that are separated from their owners. When they first launched in April, a “lost” tag would begin to emit a noise after three days, but Apple has shortened that time frame to 24 hours (which is still enough time to find a car you’ve tagged, ahem). AirTags also notify people when they are nearby, just like in the case with the Charger, so if you see a notification and it surprises you, you can make it play a sound to find it, then disable it with your iPhone.
Despite Apple’s efforts, these new reports of car theft just add to the product’s reputation as the perfect tool for bad actors who want to either stalk someone or steal something. Even worse, researchers have been able to jailbreak an AirTag and modify its firmware, allowing them to change the URL presented to a user when a tag is reported as “lost.” Though the process of jailbreaking the tiny tags is not easy, nor something most people could accomplish on their own, it’s still worrying that it’s even possible in the first place.
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