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 can be the case, vehicle tracking devices are more often used by the general public and companies. For example:
- Fleet companies to locate company vehicles.
- Taxi companies for vehicle dispatching.
- Suspicious spouses to determine their significant other’s whereabouts.
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. Used to transmit real-time data about its location, the unit has a device that operates much like a cell phone and relays data anytime it is in motion or at set intervals in some cases. 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. These store waypoints onboard and do not transmit their location, but instead operate as 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.
Step 1: Know What You’re Looking for
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 thorough checking to find them.
Tracking devices look different depending on their manufacturer and 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. It may or may not have 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.
Be sure you have a flashlight for peeking into dark spaces in your car. You may also want to purchase an electronic sweeper as well as a telescopic mirror.
Step 2: Perform a physical inspection
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.
Using a flashlight, check both front and 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 beneath the undercarriage. Use a mirror on an extendable pole to look far underneath your vehicle. Be aware: the undercarriage gets very dirty. If there’s a tracker attached, it will likely be equally dirty and require a discerning eye to spot.
Look behind your bumpers. While most bumpers don’t have many spaces to hide a tracker, it is an ideal location if room can be found within.
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, and other components. Note: it is unlikely 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 efforts are best given to locations close to the edge of your vehicle.
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 for a small black box plugged into the data port. If one is present, it can be easily removed.
Check in the trunk — including the spare tire compartment. It could be located under the spare tire, or any other crevice in the trunk space.
Check under all the seats. Using a flashlight, look for anything that appears out of place, such as a small electrical module without wires 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 depending on your vehicle make and model. Once you have access, look for a magnetically-attached device, though this is where you’ll most likely find a wired device if there is one. Check for modules with wiring that isn’t neatly wrapped into the vehicle’s harnesses. On the passenger side, the glove box can usually be removed to look for tracking devices inside.
- 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 research it online. It may be a component you don’t want to remove.
Step 3: Use an Electronic Sweeper
This device is seen in popular spy movies and actually exists! It 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 alert you of nearby signals with an audible tone, flashing light, or vibration.
To use the bug detector or sweeper, turn it on and slowly walk around your vehicle. Place it near any location you suspect a tracking device may be placed and in all the locations mentioned above. A light, vibration, or audible signal on the bug sweeper will indicate whether there is a radio frequency being transmitted nearby. The signal will indicate when you are getting close by illuminating more lights or changing its tone.
- Tip: Because some tracking devices only operate while in motion, have a friend drive your vehicle around while you scan for trackers.
Step 4: Seek Professional Assistance
Several industry professionals who work with electronics regularly can provide assistance in looking for a tracking device in your car. Look up:
- 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 — they might have more knowledge of potential hiding spots and what a device looks like.
Step 5: Remove Tracking Device
If you do happen to find a GPS tracking device hidden in your vehicle, removal is typically easy. Since most trackers are battery operated, they will not be wired to your car. Confirm 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 free.