BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) – The Apple AirTag, a ubiquitous, consumer-friendly tracking device, has the endorsement of the largest police department in the nation. 

New York City officials asked residents last spring to stow AirTags in their vehicles to help police track stolen cars, according to the financial news website The Street. They had good reason: Grand theft auto is up 13% in New York City over 2022 and 24% up in one particularly hard-hit borough, the Bronx. NYPD Chief of Patrol John Chell’s advice: Put an AirTag in your car. A nonprofit group, the Association for a Better New York, gave away 500 AirTags in support of his directive.

The AirTag, about the size of a quarter, is marketed as a way to help people keep track of keys, luggage, dogs, backpacks and other property. Users can monitor the location of their belongings through the “Find My” app on their iPhones.

The $29 devices, introduced in April 2021, have a good track record of helping victims of theft locate and report the likely location of their missing vehicles to police.

But grand theft auto is not a problem confined to New York. More than 1 million vehicles were stolen in the United States last year, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, up 7% from 2021. A widely shared TikTok “challenge” showing viewers how to bypass car ignition switches is at least partly to blame. Hyundai and Kia cars in particular are vulnerable.

Bakersfield has led the nation in per capita vehicle theft for three years running with more than 900 reported thefts per 100,000 population, according to Insurify.

AirTags emit a Bluetooth signal that uses random iPhones the way mobile phones relay signals from cell towers, and thanks to the vast number of iPhones in use across the country, they are highly reliable. They come with potential negatives, however.

In February, a 12-year-old passenger in a stolen car was killed in Denver when, after calling police, the car’s owner located his vehicle, initiated a confrontation and returned the alleged thief’s gunfire. In March, a suspected car thief was shot to death in San Antonio after the owner of the stolen vehicle used an AirTag to track his pickup. After contacting the police, the vehicle’s owner located and approached the suspected truck thief, who allegedly pulled a gun and was then shot in the head by the car’s owner.

AirTags have a darker side still: They can be used to track the movements of unsuspecting people. As a class action lawsuit filed in San Francisco in December 2022 put it, AirTags are “the weapon of choice of stalkers and abusers.” The suit claims “at least two reported murders have occurred in which the murderer used an AirTag to track the victim.”

In June 2022, a 26-year-old Indianapolis woman was arrested after allegedly tracking her boyfriend with an AirTag and running him over with her car. Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model Brooks Nader claimed last year that someone had slipped an Apple AirTag into her belongings in New York City. While she was walking home alone after a night out, she got a notification that someone was tracking her location, and had been “for a while,” she said.

In March, Ontario Provincial Police warned people that thieves were hiding AirTags on expensive vehicles while they were parked in public spaces so the thieves could later track them to the owners’ homes and steal them from their driveways.

Apple says its efforts to make AirTags safer are ongoing.

“Apple has been working closely with various safety groups and law enforcement agencies,” the company wrote on its website. “Through our own evaluations and these discussions, we have identified even more ways we can update AirTag safety warnings and help guard against further unwanted tracking.”