Detecting Tracking Devices on Vehicles
We’ve written a bit about GPS-tracking your car, and the latest post as of today is about the tracking devices that the FBI uses to keep tabs on…well, those that they feel needs keeping track of. Those of us who own a vehicle should definitely go for the first option, but how do you find out if anyone is using one of these devices to track your car without you knowing (or wanting) it?
The question is perhaps not as irrelevant to you as you might think. The FBI can, according to a 9th Circuit court judge, place these devices on any vehicle they see fit, no warrant or warning necessary. Also, there’s that jealous girl-/boyfriend, controlling parent, etc, etc. that might want to keep tabs on your whereabouts – what do we know. In any case, a GPS tracker is the method most used to track a vehicle, and though there are other methods out there (plain following you, radio beacon, etc) it’s by far the most versatile and cost effective way to do it.
So here’s how to find out if your car is being tracked – a.k.a. “Where to Look for It”. Please remember that this write-up is for a “manual” search – no fancy electronics, expensive or otherwise. Those won’t help you find a passive, GPS/GSM module without radio transmitters anyway.
One thing to remember is that a GPS tracking device needs to “see” the sky in some way. While GPS signals will penetrate thin (-ish) plastic or similar materials, they will have a tough time with metal. That’s why the device will have to be placed in a location that will both protect it and still provide a semi-clear path to the satellites above. So where should you look? Take a look at the picture below. We’ve put some helpful arrows on a cut-away view of a relatively normal car – the locations are transferable to any car that rolls on the roads today, at least.
Okay, those arrows might be a little bit confusing, so here’s a bullet list of what they mean – we’ll start from the front, and work our way back to the rear end of the car, and outside points first.
- Front Bumper Area.
This is an unlikely place, since it is a risk to whatever device is placed there, but it’s not impossible. Take your flashlight and get a good look in all the nooks and crannies that are up under there. One thing that speaks for this location is easy access to your car’s battery, in most cases. This would provide a device with uninterrupted power, and it could stay there, running, for weeks. Look for wires that doesn’t seem to fit, small black boxes and other things that look placed there. If it’s bolted to the car, don’t remove it – it could be something that’s supposed to be there. Keep in mind that wires in this location can be power for your lights, external temperature sensors, etc. Be sure before you remove anything.
- Wheel Wells.
This goes for all four of them, of course. Again, this is unlikely, but not impossible. Look for boxes, cylinders, etc. that doesn’t seem to be doing anything. The only things that should be behind your wheel (yes, you should remove the wheels to look in here) are brakes (there might be a wire going to a sensor behind the brakes – don’t touch that), springs and your dampers. That’s it. You can even see some of that in the above cut-away. There will be some kind of load-bearing structure under there too, but you won’t be able to confuse that with a tracking device. If you manage that, you should get a diploma for…something.
- Rear Bumper Area.
Just like with the front bumper area, there might be wires under here. In most cases they’re powering lights and external sensors that tell you stuff when you drive. Some people even have cameras mounted here, but in most cases those go in the rear door. Look for the usual suspects, and be careful not to remove anything that actually belongs there. You should be aware that most equipment in and on a modern car is interconnected in some way, and removing things that you should have left alone might make it hard or impossible to operate the car – i.e. get it to start…
You should go over all other “outlying” areas of the car’s undercarriage. Remember that satellite signals won’t pass through metals of normal thickness, and so any antenna needs to “see” the sky in some way or other. Make that flashlight work for you, and make sure you’ve seen the whole “outer square” of the car’s underside.
- Internal: Dashboard Area.
There’s a lot of room under the fancy dashboard inside the car. There’s stuff in there, sure, but there’s plenty of room to hide stuff too. The easiest way to gain access, in most cases, is through the glove compartment. Remove the “compartment” itself – in most cars, this is a matter of opening it, unscrewing some screws and pulling out the whole thing (mind the cables for lighting, etc). Shine your light in there. There will be a lot of wires. Those that are installed in the factory, however (the car’s “harness”) will be taped together, or held together with plastic strips. You should check any wire that has a strange color or is loose inside the dashboard. Feel with your hand up underneath the dashboard – are there antennas up there (most of them can be glued to any flat surface)?
Next, do the same for the driver side. It should be possible to take off the panel under the steering wheel. Make that flashlight earn its keep – it’ll be dark and dusty up there.
- Internal: Consoles and Such.
If you have a sunroof or if your car’s a convertible, the devices and antennas can be installed in other locations than under the dash. Check for wires, unscrew any covers that you can (remember, these were, in most cases, made to be removed if necessary – you won’t break anything unless you use force). Check for odd wires under the carpets in the car, and under the rear seats, and follow them to their source(s). Be careful not to damage any seat heating equipment.
After The Inspection – What Next?
If you’ve done these checks and found nothing, but that feeling is still there that something is going on, there’s only one thing to do, really. Get someone else to look over the car. The people who should be doing this if you’re looking for something that shouldn’t be there are car alarm installers. Find a reputable installer, and call’em up. In most cases, they’ll be very helpful, and it’s even likely that they’ve had the same kind of request before, and have had some experience with the problem. These people also know how to install tracking devices, and know what those gadgets need, so they know where they’ll be.
Still nothing? Chances are that there’s no one tracking you, buddy. Rest easy.