How GPS tracking devices were abused in Minnesota: ‘It feels like I’m being terrorized’

While GPS technology can help consumers in a variety of ways, a growing number of criminals are using the technology to illegally track and even stalk their victims.

GPS technology is already a $3 billion industry and market forecasts predict that it will continue to grow over the next few years.

Using GPS tracking devices without an individual’s consent for location tracking is illegal in Minnesota. However, it’s still very easy to get one of these devices for as little as $20.

FOX 9 investigators have highlighted two cases in Minnesota that demonstrate the risks of GPS tracking devices and their misuse.

Pursued in Duluth

On a November night in 2021, dashcam video shows a St. Louis County sheriff’s deputy looking for a driver on a freeway outside of Duluth.

Video obtained by FOX 9 investigators shows the deputy on the phone with a man who applied for a welfare check for his girlfriend. The video shows the man giving the deputy step-by-step instructions on her exact location.

According to police files, the man initially claimed he could “see her location on his phone” because they “share their Google locations with each other.”

However, when the officer caught up with the victim and questioned her, she explained that her phone had actually been “off for five hours” and she suspected the man “had a tracking device on her vehicle.”

“It feels like I’m being terrorized,” the victim told the officer.

Officers helped the victim search the interior of her car, where authorities discovered a GPS tracking device hidden under the passenger seat.

“He always seems to find me no matter what,” the victim said during a taped interview. “I try to leave him, but he always finds me.”

The responding deputy requested that the case be referred to the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office for prosecution consideration. This never happened, however, and after a month had elapsed, the victim seemed less interested in pressing charges.

Interstate stalking

In December 2018, Shawn Kelly Thomason was found to have tracked down his ex-girlfriend in three states. Investigative documents show that he attached GPS trackers to her car to track her to Mankato, Minnesota.

The victim told authorities in an interview: “I was very scared for the most part and immediately panicked.”

Thomason was arrested at a motel, where police officers seized several duffel bags’ worth of items, including a loaded gun, ammunition, a taser, latex gloves and black electrical tape.

FOX 9 investigators obtained a copy of Thomason’s interrogation, in which he admitted to having the GPS tracker attached to the victim’s car for “a week or two.”

The interrogating officer told Thomason: “They have a tracking device on her car and they know exactly where she’s been going for the past two weeks. How is she sure? You showed up here with a gun. How can she think she’s safe?”

Thomason later replied, “Certainly not in the way I wanted. I just wanted to talk to her.”

Thomason was eventually convicted in federal court of interstate stalking and was released after serving less than two years in federal prison.

The Rise of AirTags

In recent years, the popularity of Apple AirTags to help you keep track of your belongings has also created problems for unwary Minnesotans.

“We’re seeing AirTags being used to track people without permission,” said Mark Lanterman, chief technology officer of Computer Forensic Services, a company that works with 38 law enforcement agencies across Minnesota.

“These devices are really small, a lot of them are magnetic, and they stick to the underside of a car very easily, and if you don’t look for them, you won’t find them,” Lanterman said.

There are a few safeguards Apple built into the AirTag design, including a small speaker to alert you to its presence. You should also get a notification on your iPhone when you’re being tracked by an AirTag.

“The problem is, you can now buy an AirTag on eBay that has the speaker removed so there are no beeps,” Lanterman warned.

FOX 9 investigators conducted a small product test to see how quickly the AirTags alert system triggered.

Four FOX 9 employees were AirTagged at the same time and waited to see how long it was before they received an alert that an AirTag was following them. The shortest time to receive a notification was two hours, while the longest time to receive a notification was nine hours.

“There can be a lot of violence in a 24 to 48 hour period,” Lanterman said.

A spokesman for Apple points out that the AirTag warning system is based on more than just time. It also takes into account important places like your work place, your home and other places you visit frequently.

In a statement to FOX 9 Investigators, an Apple spokesperson said, “We strongly condemn any malicious use of our products…” and later added, “We are committed to listening to feedback and innovating to make continuous improvements.” “ to prevent unwanted tracking.”

Earlier this month, Apple and Google announced a partnership to develop a new standard for preventing unwanted tracking — an alert system that should be compatible with both Apple and Android devices by the end of the year.

Take care of your own safety

Despite recent efforts to prevent unwanted tracking, some of the cheapest tracking devices, like those highlighted in the Duluth and Mankato cases, have no warning system at all.

Safety expert Mark Lanterman said it’s crucial that you take responsibility for your own safety.

“If we think there’s a possibility, or if we have a notification on our phone that an AirTag is following us, contact law enforcement, file a complaint, take your car to a gas station and have someone take a look.” to throw at it. ‘ Lanterman said. “We have to be proactive and keep our own safety.”

If you don’t have an iPhone, Apple recommends downloading the Tracker Detect app from the Google Play Store, which Android users can use to search for trackers, including the Apple AirTag and Chipolo ONE Spot.

What to do when you get a notification that you have an AirTag, Find My networking accessory, or set of AirPods – Apple Support

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