How to Find and Disable a Hidden Apple AirTag That Could Be Tracking You

Apple's new tracking device was created to help you find lost items, but experts warn that AirTags could also put your safety and privacy at risk.

Apple has improved our lives in thousands of positive ways, from turning phones into veritable computers to making it easier to track health info and pay via wristwatch. And yes, by creating tech that tracks lost objects. That’s the simple solution behind AirTags, small Bluetooth- and GPS-enabled devices designed to help you find frequently lost items, like keys and wallets. Unfortunately, this new tracking technology can be dangerous in the wrong hands. This year, a Sports Illustrated model reported that a stranger tried to track her location using one of Apple’s AirTags.

While these incidents are rare, devices like AirTags now make it easier than ever to secretly track someone. “With tracking technology of the Apple AirTag and its competitors, the technology is smaller than your hand, relatively low cost, and fairly easy to use,” says Theresa Payton, CEO of cybersecurity company Fortalice Solutions. The company’s clients have found AirTags and other tracking devices inside their purses, jackets, work bags, computers, bikes, and even car glove compartments, according to Payton.

Here’s the good news: Anyone can spot and prevent a potential AirTag tracking situation. We asked cybersecurity experts to share the signs you’re being tracked and how to find and disable AirTags so you can move through the day with peace of mind. If you’re an Apple user, you can also beef up your iPhone security by learning how to turn off location tracking on your iPhone, how to tell if your phone has been hacked, and what your smartphone knows about you.

What is an Apple AirTag?

AirTags are circular devices—slightly larger than a quarter—that connect to Apple’s Find My app via Bluetooth, then share their location using Apple’s network of devices. When attached to a frequently misplaced item, an AirTag can make a sound or share its GPS signal to help you find it.

Attach one to your key chain, and the next time you lose your keys (it’s bound to happen), you can avoid searching your house and simply track the AirTag.

How can someone use AirTags to track you?

close up of an apple airtag in an open backpack pocketrd.com

Imagine this: You’re at a restaurant, purse hanging from the back of your chair. You’re having fun. You’re focused on your dinner companions. You’re not even looking when a stranger brushes past you and drops an AirTag into your pocketbook. Or maybe you’re walking home and a stranger bumps into you, covertly dropping an AirTag into your pocket. Or maybe you’re at work, in a store, or somewhere else when a criminal places an AirTag on your car to track it and later steal it.

Those are just a few scenarios that illustrate how some bad apples can twist the good intentions of a product created to make life better. It’s similar to how Wi-Fi makes using the Internet easier, but connecting to public Wi-Fi can put your security at risk.

While competing products like Tile offer a similar tracking service, “an AirTag is far more potentially dangerous,” according to Thomas Reed, a Mac and malware expert at Malwarebytes. While a Tile can be located only when the owner’s app is open and nearby, “an AirTag can be tracked by coming into range of any iPhone, which essentially means that an AirTag will probably be trackable most of the time,” he says.

How to know if you’re being tracked

This isn’t the first time Apple products have faced security and privacy issues. The company recently came under fire for a new feature that could scan your iPhone photos. But this time, the safety risk feels especially serious, particularly to women living, driving, or walking home alone.

As warnings about the dangers of tracking devices grow, Apple has taken steps to protect users from unwanted tracking. Apple devices with iOS 14.5 or newer will send alerts through the Find My app if they recognize an AirTag moving with the user. “If you receive an ‘AirTag Found Moving with You’ alert and you don’t own an AirTag, that’s a sign you are possibly being tracked,” Payton says.

For Android users, Apple released a Tracker Detect app that sends notifications if it detects an AirTag nearby.

How to prevent being tracked by Apple AirTags

There are two important ways to protect yourself from being secretly tracked with an AirTag, according to Payton. First, periodically search your personal items, like keys, purses, jacket pockets, and work bags, for unfamiliar devices or attachments. “If you see something that you do not remember adding yourself, this could be a tracker,” Payton says.

She also suggests getting a Bluetooth tracking app or scanner, which you can use to scan your nearby surroundings for unknown devices. Although these tools don’t reveal who owns the technology, an unknown device in your house or on a personal item is a red flag and should be investigated further, according to Payton. You can use this Bluetooth-scanning technology to uncover hidden cameras too.

How and why to get the serial number of an AirTag you find

If you discover an AirTag tracking your location, your first step should be to get the device’s serial number. Sharing an AirTag’s serial number with law enforcement can help them track down the tag’s owner, Payton says. There are a few ways you can find the serial number of an AirTag.

Using the Find My app on an iPhone:

Find My app icon is seen on an iPhone next to an Apple AirTag.hapabapa/Getty Images

  1. Open the Find My app.
  2. Hold the AirTag near your iPhone.
  3. Tap the AirTag notification when it appears.
  4. The serial number will be listed at the top of the screen, along with the last four digits of the owner’s phone number.

Touching an iPhone to an AirTag:

screenshot images of what you would see by holding your iphone to the apple airtag to find the serial numbervia apple.com (2)

  1. Tap and hold the top of your iPhone to the white side of the AirTag.
  2. Tap the notification that appears on the screen. It will open a web page.
  3. The serial number will appear on the web page.

Holding an Android phone near an AirTag:

  1. Place your Android phone near an AirTag.
  2. Tap the pop-up window to open a web page.
  3. The serial number will appear on the web page.

Unscrewing the AirTag:

apple airtag that has been opened to reveal the battery and serial numberrd.com

  1. Press down on the back of the AirTag.
  2. Twist counterclockwise to remove the cover.
  3. Remove the battery.
  4. The serial number will be printed on the AirTag, below the battery.

How to disable an AirTag you find

Want to stop an AirTag from tracking your location? Disable the AirTag. Here’s how:

  1. Press down on the back of the device.
  2. Twist counterclockwise to open it.
  3. Remove the battery.

Be aware that disabling an AirTag will send an alert to the tracker’s owner, Payton says. She recommends filing a police report—as well as creating and sharing an emergency plan with people you trust—if you have safety concerns after finding an unfamiliar AirTag.

To protect yourself from other security issues, like identity theft, learn how to spot these common online scams.

Sources:

  • Theresa Payton, CEO of Fortalice Solutions
  • Thomas Reed, director of Mac and mobile at Malwarebytes
  • Apple: “What to do if you get an alert that an AirTag or Find My network accessory is with you”
  • Apple: “How to find the serial number of an AirTag”
  • Sports Illustrated Swimsuit: “Brooks Nader Shares Scary Stalking Story Involving an Air Tag”
Close up of young woman having coffee and reading news on mobile phone in the early morning before workd3sign/Getty Images

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Brooke Nelson
Brooke is a tech and consumer products writer covering the latest in digital trends, product reviews, security and privacy, and other news and features for RD.com.