AirTags becoming 'weapon of choice of stalkers and abusers' as GPS tracker cases rocket by 317%

The use of GPS trackers - designed to help recover lost items - reported in cases of coercive control and stalking, rose by more than 300% in the last six years. ITV News Correspondent Rachel Younger reports

When the Apple AirTag was launched three years ago, it quickly won a legion of fans.

Around the same size as a 50p, the tags are so light they can be attached to almost anything.

They were designed to help people keep track of their own property, particularly when it's lost or stolen.

Costing less than £30, AirTags have reunited their owners with misplaced suitcases and even lost pets.

But the same device has also prompted a lawsuit against Apple in America.

It alleges that, partly due to Apple's negligence, AirTags have become "the weapon of choice of stalkers and abusers" because they can be covertly used to give "real time location information to track victims".

LaPrecia Sanders (R) is trying to sue Apple, after her son Andre Smith was killed by his ex girlfriend in Indiana in 2022. Credit: ITV News

ITV News spoke to LaPrecia Sanders, one of those trying to sue Apple, after her son Andre Smith was killed by his ex girlfriend outside an Indiana bar in 2022.

She described how he told the friend he was with that night that he believed someone was following him and kept checking his phone.

When his car was later dismantled an Apple AirTag was found carefully concealed in its bodywork.

After running him over, Andre's ex girlfriend is now serving 18 years for manslaughter.

But LaPrecia believes she wouldn't have been able to track down her son that night without the AirTag which was left in his car.

AirTags are far from the only way stalkers can use tech to keep tabs on their victims in real time.

But while GPS trackers or black boxes can be wired into a car's electrics or powered by batteries, the AirTag is uniquely unobtrusive.

One Irish national, Àine O’Neill, had been living in California while launching a Hollywood career that was just taking off when she found AirTags inexplicably being used to monitor her every move.

Police conducted a fingertip search of her car concluding that an AirTag had been deliberately concealed in its bodywork making it impossible to find. "

She told ITV News: "All at once I was like, this is something sinister, someone's trying to kill me, that person could be outside my garden."

"Using these words, as I'm conscious of people who have mental health issues, but I had what I can only describe as a mental breakdown."

Àine O’Neill had been living in California when she found AirTags being used to monitor her. Credit: ITV News

She gave up her career and moved back to Ireland, feeling that she had "no way of revealing the identity of her stalker or properly gauging the level of danger she was in."

Apple responded to our request for comment by directing us to a statement on their website.

It told ITV News that "incidents of AirTag misuse are rare; however each instance is one too many"

The tech giant said: "Apple has been working closely with various safety groups and law enforcement agencies ... we have identified even more ways we can update AirTag safety warnings and help guard against further unwanted tracking."

ITV News found in the last five years the use of GPS trackers reported in the use of coercive control and stalking cases rose by 317%, up from 52 in 2018 to 217 in 2023.

This data was obtained from Freedom of Information requests to all UK police forces; 14 forces responded with data.

GPS stalking cases rose every year in the last five years, with the biggest increase from 2022 (45) to 2023 (170).

But when it comes to how crime like this is dealt with, there is also evidence of a postcode lottery within the UK.

The Cyber Helpline, which offers support to victims, believes not every police officer is trained to understand the tech. Some victims report being told to throw away AirTags (if they can find them), risking the destruction of evidence that might prevent a successful prosecution.

But those trying to sue Apple believe it's up to the tech giant, with all its expertise and resources, to make the Airtag safer.

For Aine, the case isn't about compensation but challenging the way Apple launches its products.

"I would love to ask Apple who was at the table when this was going through security protocols.

"Where were the security measures [stopping them] saying we'll put this device out on the market but we won't look at how its going to affect the vulnerable, how it's going to affect women, when its being used?" she said.

But for now, a device designed to make lives easier is raising difficult questions about the real cost of convenience.

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