Vehicle tracking devices are often thought to be used by private investigators as a method of keeping tabs on a person’s whereabouts. While that is sometimes the case, more often vehicle tracking devices are used by the general public and companies, such as:
- Fleet companies use GPS tracking devices to locate company vehicles
- Taxi companies use tracking devices for taxi dispatching
- Suspicious spouses use trackers to determine their significant other’s location
Trackers can be purchased online from various sources that sell private investigation equipment or recreational spy equipment. They are also available from some retail stores that specialize in electronics, video surveillance, and GPS equipment. Because tracking devices use GPS or cellular technology to determine location, a subscription or service agreement typically needs to be arranged in order to receive data from the tracking device.
There are two main types of vehicle tracking devices:
Monitored GPS tracking devices transmit real-time data about its location. The unit has a device that operates much like a cellular phone and transmits data anytime the unit is in motion, or at set intervals in some cases, such once per minute. While some can be hardwired into the vehicle for power supply, most are battery operated. Battery-operated tracking devices usually have a sensor that determines when the tracker is in motion and initiates power and signal transmission at that time, then turns off after it has not moved for several minutes. Tracking data can be sent to an internet-connected computer or to a smartphone, making it quite convenient.
Unmonitored GPS tracking devices store waypoints onboard. They do not transmit their location, but instead operate like a handheld GPS device. When the vehicle is in motion, the GPS tracking device collects waypoints at set time intervals as coordinates that must later be plotted. The unmonitored devices are less expensive because they don’t require a subscription for their monitoring activity but need to be retrieved and downloaded to obtain the tracking information.
Part 1 of 5: Finding a tracker in your car
If you are suspicious that someone is monitoring your movements with a GPS or cellular tracking device, there are three ways to find the unit if it is being used.
Most tracking devices are intended for legitimate tracking purposes and aren’t meant for concealment. Ones that are specifically made for concealment are usually placed on the exterior of the vehicle and require a thorough check to find them.
Tracking devices look different depending on their manufacturer and their purpose, but some general guidelines can help you locate one on your vehicle. It will typically look like a small box with a magnetic side. There may or may not be an antenna or a light on it. It will be small, usually three to four inches long, two inches wide and an inch or so thick.
- Electronic sweeper (optional)
Part 2 of 5: Perform a physical inspection
Step 1: Check the exterior. You want to check all the locations where a tracker could be hidden. A tracking device placed on the exterior of your vehicle needs to be weatherproof and compact.
Check the wheel wells. Using a flashlight, look in both front and both rear wheel wells. Use your hand to feel in areas that aren’t easily visible. If a tracker is located in the wheel well, its magnet will need to be attached to a metal part, so look behind plastic covers that don’t require removal.
Look at the undercarriage. Use a mirror on an extendable pole to look far underneath your vehicle. Be aware that if there is a tracker underneath it will likely be as dirty as the undercarriage and will require your discerning eye to spot.
Look behind your bumpers. While in most bumpers there aren’t many spaces to hide a tracker since access is tight, but it is an ideal location if there is space inside.
Inspect under the hood. Lift your hood and look for a tracking device stuck to the strut towers, the firewall, behind the radiator, or hidden among the battery, air ducts, or other components. It is unlikely that a tracker would be under the hood as it would be exposed to temperatures that could damage its delicate electrical componentry.
Tip: A tracking device needs to be accessible to the party who installed it, so it will typically be in a location where it can very quickly and inconspicuously be removed. Your most concerted efforts are best given to locations close to the edge of your vehicle.
Step 2: Inspect the interior.
- Some tracking devices are simplistic and plug straight into the data port underneath the driver’s side of the dashboard. Check if there is a small black box plugged into the data port. If one is present, it can be very easily removed by simply pulling it out.
Check in the trunk, in the spare tire compartment. It could be located under the spare tire or any other nook or crevice here.
Check under all the seats. Using a flashlight, look for anything that appears out of place such as a small electrical module without wires attached or with a couple of loose-hanging wires. Compare the undersides of both front seats to determine if something is abnormal. You can also check the edge of the seat upholstery for lumps that may hide a tracking device. Check under the rear seat as well if it is movable.
Inspect the underside of the dashboard. You may or may not have to remove a cover underneath the driver’s side dash to inspect for a tracking device there depending on your vehicle make and model. Once you have access, look for a magnetically-attached device, though this is the location where a wired device is most likely to be found as well. Check for modules with wiring that isn’t neatly wrapped into the vehicle’s harnesses. On the passenger side, the glove box can be removed in many cases to inspect for tracking devices placed there.
- Tip: Under the dash, other accessories like remote starters or power door lock modules may be wired in. Before removing a device under the dash that you suspect to be a tracking device, check for a brand name or model number and search it online. It may be a component you don’t want to remove.
Part 3 of 5: Use an electronic sweeper
This is a device that is seen in popular spy movies that actually exists and can be purchased online or at surveillance supply retailers. An electronic sweeper checks for the presence of a radio frequency transmission or a cellular signal transmission and indicates its existence to the electronic sweeper’s user.
Sweepers come in varying shapes and sizes, from a pen that conceals the device to a small, cassette tape-sized unit. They scan for a wide range of radio frequencies and indicate in an audible tone, a flashing light, or a vibration if there is a signal present nearby.
To use the bug detector or sweeper, simply power it on and slowly walk around your vehicle. Place it near any location you suspect a tracking device is placed and in all the locations mentioned above. A light, a vibration, or an audible signal on the bug sweeper will indicate if there is a radio frequency being transmitted nearby. The signal will indicate you are getting close by illuminating more lights or changing tone.
- Tip: Because some tracking devices only operate while in motion, have a friend drive your vehicle around while you scan for trackers.
Part 4 of 5: Get a professional inspection
Industry professionals who work with electronics regularly such as:
- Alarm system installers
- Audio system technicians
- Licensed mechanics specializing in electrical systems
- Remote start installers
Professionals can identify GPS tracking devices that you may have missed. You can also hire a private investigator to check your vehicle for tracking devices.
Part 5 of 5: How to handle a tracking device
If you do happen to find a GPS tracking device hidden on your vehicle and want to remove it, it will be simple in nearly all cases. Since most trackers are battery operated, they will not be wired in. Confirm that there are no wires attached to the unit and simply disconnect it. If it is taped or tied in place, carefully cut it loose, making sure you don’t damage any vehicle wiring or components. If it is magnetic, a gentle tug will pull it loose.