We’ve all seen an action movie where someone very quickly drops a tracking device on a vehicle and from then on, they know every move the other person makes.
While this is great for the movies, it leads to easy detection and often some very serious consequences in the real world. The truth is that GPS surveillance is a very real issue these days, and although it is not always legal, that has not prevented these devices from being used.
This article will give you some insight into the units, how they’re used, what the risks of using them are, and most importantly what to do if you (or more likely, your mechanic) find one.
What is a GPS unit?
GPS (Global Positioning System) trackers are units ranging from about the size of a small wall adapter for charging your cellular phone to slightly larger than the old Motorola brick cellular phones, which allows communication between the unit and local cellular transmission towers and / or satellites in outer space to repeatedly pinpoint their location and depending on the software in use, allow tracking, digital mapping, and much more of the target vehicle or object. As with any type remote electronic device, the units require a power source and a mounting method. This generally accounts for 80-90% of the units’ overall size.
How do they work?
There are many ways to configure a unit, but the most common devices have a small GPS transmitter and often a cellular phone network connection. Often this requires having an additional data or cellular phone plan that is dedicated to the unit. The device then operates like a cellular phone in that the operator (often the same person that installed it) can log into an online service (often from their cellular phone, tablet or another type of computer) and communicate with the unit remotely.
Through the software the operator can see and track movement of the unit by communicating through satellites in outer space or by calling the unit through cellular towers (much like placing a cellular phone call to another person). Often this software incorporates many features and can usually provide a detailed map of activity at the end of each trip. The one limitation that the operator must deal with after installation is battery life. The more frequently the operator communicates with the device, the faster the batteries will die and need to be recharged or replaced.
Are they legal? Who can buy them?
While there is no law against buying one or owning a GPS unit, there are a number of very serious laws regarding using them. For example, if I own my own vehicle (100% ownership), then I can put as many trackers in it as I want to and never have to disclose to anybody else that my car has a tracker in it.
However, if my wife and I each own our own vehicles (100% ownership respectively) and I put a tracker in her car, I can be subject to numerous fines, criminal charges, privacy laws, etc. If we jointly own the vehicle, it is best not to put a tracker in the car. If I did, we would end up in a very sticky mess unless I could prove that she was aware of the device and its purpose and had consented to it in advance, etc.
It doesn’t matter that you can buy them online, at flea markets, in technology stores, etc. If a GPS unit is used inappropriately, or if you cannot prove that it was not used inappropriately, you can still be subject to the same laws, fines, and penalties as any common criminal.
Installation of the units
This really depends highly on how much access the installer has to the vehicle and how much time they have. Units can be installed within the vehicle and even connected to power sources within the vehicle or they can be mounted externally. If they are internal they can literally be installed anywhere although for best results they tend to be installed in between the interior cabin and the outer frame of the vehicle. When mounted externally, they can be mounted anywhere (usually by using a very powerful magnet or series of magnets) but are commonly located away from moving parts, the engine, or areas that absorb hard impacts. However, the installers are not always skilled professionals and we have found units in the wheel wells, under the hood, hanging off the bottom of the oil pan, etc.
What do I do if I find one?
Units that are found by the target (that’s you) are found most commonly one of four ways: they hire a professional to “bugsweep” the vehicle; the installer failed to mount the unit properly and it fell off (either in the driveway or in transit); the installer mounted it in plain view (like near the tires or under the hood); or during maintenance their mechanic noticed and advised them of something that didn’t belong there.
Our first human instinct when finding a device is to pull it off of our vehicle at once; however, this is not the best idea. You do not know when removing the unit if you are disturbing evidence or fingerprints of the installer. Also, more expensive devices have switches that are activated once the device is removed and that switch can be programmed to erase the unit immediately, notify the operator / installer that the unit was detected, etc.
Therefore you have three options: you can remove and take your chances; you can call the police; or you can contact your lawyer / investigator. If you remove it yourself, place it into a plastic bag and don’t touch it any further. Contact your lawyer or the police.
If you choose to contact the police before you contact your lawyer or investigator, there is a very good chance that you will not hear anything back about your device for a long time (if ever) unless they immediately find the operator and press charges.
If you choose to contact your lawyer, it is in the best interest of all parties to have a competent investigator attend the scene, properly document the device on the vehicle, inspect it for the safest method to remove it, document doing so and then fully document the unit off of the vehicle. From there, some investigation can be done to identify the unit / operator / installer and to forensically mirror the device and fully document it for court. The unit will ultimately be submitted to police (unless you choose not to do so) and you will have as much of the information about the device as possible to assist your lawyer with your case.
Regardless of which choice you make, you must allow the investigating party time and space to explore the unit in order to provide answers and ensure that all information is court ready.