How GPS tracking devices have been misused in Minnesota: ‘It feels like I’m getting terrorized’

While GPS technology can be helpful to consumers in a variety of ways, more criminals are leveraging the technology to illegally track and even stalk their victims.

GPS technology is already a $3 billion industry and market projections expect it to grow even more over the next few years.

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

The FOX 9 Investigators highlighted two cases in Minnesota, which reveal the risks of GPS tracking devices and how they can be misused.

Tracked in Duluth

On a November night in 2021, dash camera video shows a St. Louis County Sheriff’s deputy in search of a driver on a highway outside of Duluth.

The video obtained by the FOX 9 Investigators shows the deputy on the phone with a man who requested a welfare check on his girlfriend. The video shows the man giving the deputy turn by turn updates of her exact location.

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

However, when the deputy caught up with the victim and questioned her, she explained her phone had in fact "been off for five hours" and she suspected the man "had a tracker on her vehicle."

"It feels like I’m getting terrorized," the victim told the deputy. 

Deputies helped the victim search the inside of her car where authorities located a GPS tracking device hidden underneath the rear passenger seat. 

"He always seems to find me no matter what," the victim said during a recorded interview. "I’m trying to leave him but he always finds me."

The responding deputy requested the case be forwarded to the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office to consider prosecution. However, that never happened and after a month passed, the victim seemed less interested in pressing charges. 

Interstate stalking

In December 2018, Shawn Kelly Thomason was discovered to have tracked his ex-girlfriend across three states. Investigative records reveal he put GPS trackers on her car to stalk her to Mankato, Minnesota. 

The victim told authorities in an interview: "I was mostly really scared and I panicked immediately."

Thomason was arrested at a motel where law enforcement officers recovered several duffle bags worth of items, including a loaded gun, ammunition, a Taser, latex gloves and black electrical tape.

The FOX 9 Investigators obtained a copy of Thomason’s interrogation, where he admitted to having placed the GPS tracker on the victim’s car for "a week or two."

The interrogating officer told Thomason: "You put a tracker on her car and know exactly where she went for the last two weeks. How is she safe? You showed up here with a gun. How can she possibly think she’s safe?"

Thomason later replied: "Certainly not how I wanted it to turn out. I just wanted to talk to her."

Thomason was ultimately convicted in federal court for interstate stalking and released after serving less than two years in federal lockup. 

The rise of AirTags

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

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

"These devices are really small, many of them are magnetic and they stick very easily to the bottom of a car, and if you’re not looking for it, you’re not going to find it," Lanterman said.

There are some protections Apple built into the AirTag design, including a small speaker that alerts its presence. You’re also supposed to get a notification on your iPhone if you’re being followed by an AirTag.

"The problem is you can go on eBay right now and you can buy an AirTag that has had the speaker removed, so there are no beeps," Lanterman warned.

The FOX 9 Investigators conducted a small product test to see how fast the alert system for AirTags was triggered.

Four FOX 9 employees were given AirTags at the same time and waited to see how long until they received an alert they were being followed by an AirTag. The shortest amount of time it took before receiving an alert was two hours, while the longest was nine hours before getting notified.

"There’s a lot of violence that can occur in a 24 to 48 hour period," Lanterman said.

A spokesperson for Apple points out the AirTag alert system is based on more than just time. It also factors in significant locations like work, home and other places you frequent.

In a statement to the FOX 9 Investigators, a spokesperson for Apple said, "We condemn in the strongest possible terms any malicious use of our products…" adding later that "we’re committed to listening to feedback and innovating to make improvements that continue to guard against unwanted tracking."

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

Securing your own safety

Despite new efforts to thwart unwanted tracking, some of the cheapest tracking devices like the ones highlighted in the cases in Duluth and Mankato, have no alert system at all.

Security expert Mark Lanterman said it’s crucial for you to take responsibility of your own security. 

"If we think that there is a possibility or if we have a notification on our phone that an AirTag is following us, contact law enforcement, file a report, take your car to a to a service station and ask someone to take a look," Lanterman said. "We need to be proactive and maintain our own security." 

If you don’t have an iPhone, Apple suggests downloading the ‘Tracker Detect’ app in the Google Play Store, which allows Android users to scan for trackers, including the Apple AirTag and the Chipolo ONE Spot.

What to do if you get an alert that an AirTag, Find My network accessory, or set of AirPods is with you - Apple Support