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State cracks down on cyber stalking with Apple AirTags, other hidden tracking devices

<i> An Apple AirTag is shown in this April 5, 2024, photograph. (Ted Bridis/Fresh Take Florida)</i>
An Apple AirTag is shown in this April 5, 2024, photograph. (Ted Bridis/Fresh Take Florida)

Florida is set to crack down on high-tech stalking using hidden tracking devices – such as Apple AirTags, other Bluetooth gadgets or digital apps – that secretly monitor the movements of another person.

The change in state law, which raises the penalty from a misdemeanor to a felony, could send someone to prison for up to five years.

The move brings Florida's law against stalking into the digital age, when inexpensive and widely available technology makes it easier than ever to track someone's movements minute by minute without their knowledge.

The CEO of a domestic violence shelter that serves Pinellas and Marion counties, Lariana Forsythe of Community Action Stops Abuse, said women who seek help from her agency encounter hidden tracking devices "all the time." She said it was one way that abusers exert control.

Forsythe said even under changes to Florida's law, prosecutors should stick with felony charges. "Charges are very often pled down,” Forsythe said. “We need to see it actually put into application.”

Florida’s criminal courts have handled more than 150 cases involving unlawful tracking under the stalking law since 2021, records show.

In Gainesville, David Anthony Velez, 60, admitted to an ex-girlfriend who lived in Jacksonville that he had hidden one of Apple’s quarter-sized, $25 tracking devices inside her vehicle, police said. The woman’s neighbor helped find the device taped under the front passenger seat. Afterward, she told Velez never to contact her again.

Under the old law, Velez – who didn’t return phone and text messages to talk about the case – pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of installing a tracking device in June 2022. The judge sentenced Velez to a $276 fine and no jail time, and he withheld adjudication in the case so it doesn’t show up as a formal criminal conviction on Velez’s record.

The Legislature passed the update to Florida’s stalking law unanimously, and Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to sign it soon. It would go into effect Oct. 1.

The new law would close a loophole: A person accused of placing or using a device or app to track someone or their property without permission could escape consequences under the current statute, which only outlaws “installing” a tracking device.

“That’s something I wouldn’t want happening to my daughter,” said the lawmaker who wrote the House version of the proposal, Rep. Toby Overdorf, R-Stuart.

Rep. Michele K. Rayner, D-St. Petersburg, told lawmakers during a House criminal justice subcommittee hearing in December that she had been illegally tracked by such a device. She voted for the bill.

“I wish that this bill was in place, and this law was in place, a while ago,” she said. “This is why we say policy is personal.”

The Legislature said the change is significant enough that it may require more jail beds or prison cells in Florida.

Bluetooth trackers like Apple's AirTags, Google’s Nest tags or Tile devices work by transmitting a signal to nearby phones or tablets, which report the tracker's location for the tracker's owner and display its moves in real time on a map. The trackers – which can be attached to or tucked in a purse, wallet, backpack, suitcase or keychain – are battery powered and generally water resistant. They can last up to two years without recharging or battery replacements.

Apple warns customers on its website not to use the trackers illegally, noting that it cooperates with law enforcement to help trace owners of trackers when necessary. An upcoming change to Apple's iPhone and iPad software will make it easier for users to detect unwanted trackers around them and disable them.

The new law allows police to use such tracking devices in criminal investigations; parents, guardians or caregivers to use the devices to track a child, elderly person or disabled adult; or owners of vehicles to use devices to track their own cars or trucks.

Yanitza Diaz, 51, of Gainesville learned from her 15-year-old daughter that Diaz’s ex-boyfriend – who she dated for 11 years – knew everywhere they went. A sheriff’s deputy said the ex-boyfriend, Julio Cesar Rivera, 54, of Gainesville had boasted about tracking them but never explained how he was doing it during a conversation after the breakup with the teen, who considered Rivera a father figure.

“She opened her eyes and got scared,” Diaz said about her daughter’s reaction. She called it “a big red flag.”

Two months later, after a shopping trip in November, Diaz’s daughter found a magnetic box attached under her SUV’s bumper with one of Apple’s AirTag devices wrapped in tissue inside. Diaz had received a warning from Apple on her phone that a tracker was nearby, and a sheriff’s deputy said Rivera had purchased it.

The case against Rivera, who didn’t respond to phone and text messages, is still winding its way through the court system, where there has been no action since December. The sheriff’s deputy, Alfred Robertson, recommended that prosecutors charge Rivera with a misdemeanor under Florida’s stalking law. Diaz said she attempted unsuccessfully to obtain a restraining order against Rivera, who now lives three houses away.

“I’m paranoid that something could happen to me,” she said. “I leave my house not knowing what could happen.”

Capt. Troy Norman of the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office along Florida’s East Coast, said investigating such cases as felonies would make it easier to allow law enforcement agencies to obtain search warrants from judges, instead of relying on companies to turn over records under a subpoena, which can take up to 30 days.“Making it a felony will speed up the process,” Norman said.

Jeremy Ryan Skidmore, 43, of St. Petersburg found an Apple AirTag under the seat of his car in March 2023 after ending a three-year relationship with a boyfriend, Zachary Neal Welch, 41. Police said Welch admitted placing the device. Welch was sentenced in August to 120 days in jail and fined $850, according to court records.

“The time and all I got for that was way worse than I deserved,” Welch wrote in a text discussing his case. “Crazy that might be a felony.”

Skidmore said he discovered the hidden tracker because Apple sent a notification to his phone that one of the devices was nearby. A newer feature on Apple’s system allows anyone who finds one to use an iPhone to learn the last four digits of the phone number attached to the device’s owner.

“I got lucky because of that,” Skidmore said. “If I didn’t know, how long would this have gone on and how bad would it have gotten?”

Paola Ballester Dees stands outside her home in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Sunday, March 31, 2024. (Caleb Ross/Fresh Take Florida)
Paola Ballester Dees stands outside her home in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Sunday, March 31, 2024. (Caleb Ross/Fresh Take Florida)

Paola Ballester Dees, 46, of St. Petersburg is one of three Florida residents suing Apple in a class-action case in federal court in California. The lawsuit filed in December 2022 on behalf of 38 people, alleges that the company’s AirTags are used across the country to stalk or otherwise track people without their consent, and Apple’s few safeguards in place are insufficient to keep victims safe.

In an interview, Dees said she found an AirTag hidden in a new car she purchased after a traffic accident. She said a former partner put it there to stalk her. She said Apple would not release information about how the device was used to track her, which she said led to a judge denying her request for a domestic violence protective order.

“Apple had made very public commitments to wanting to help victims of when the AirTag technology was used for allegedly unintended purposes,” Dees said. “In my case, they did not do that at all.”

The lawsuit is not expected to be resolved before late summer.


This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporters can be reached at jaredteitel@ufl.edu and sandra.mcdonald@ufl.edu. You can donate to support our students here.

Copyright 2024 WUFT 89.1. To see more, visit WUFT 89.1.

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