Some users are getting 'phantom' AirTag alerts, but Apple has a fix

Apple AirTag attached to a keyring
Apple AirTags might be causes phantom alerts (Image credit: Future)

If you're getting warnings on your iPhone about AirTags that aren't actually there, you're not alone: Apple has confirmed that "phantom AirTag alerts" are appearing for some users, notifying them about trackers that aren't actually there.

This is as per an article from the Wall Street Journal, which says that the bug shows straight red lines radiating out from a user's location – but then there's no sign of the AirTag that's been reported. It's not clear how many people have seen it, but Apple has acknowledged that it's happening.

Only a few days ago, an anti-stalking update was issued for these portable tracking devices, but this issue seems to predate that: the WSJ says the phantom AirTag bug has been affecting users in "recent weeks".

"Temporarily confused"

An Apple spokesperson told the WSJ that location services iPhones might be getting "temporarily confused" by Wi-Fi signals, and that AirTags owned by other users might "inadvertently trigger unwanted alerts" in densely populated areas.

There's a temporary fix for the first problem at least, which is to toggle location services off and then on again on the phone. If you open up the iOS Settings screen on your iPhone, you'll find the option in the Privacy menu.

As yet we don't know if a software patch will be required to fix the issue permanently, but in the meantime keep paying attention to AirTag alerts – just don't be surprised if you get one for a tracker device that can't actually be found.

Analysis: a balance for Apple

When you lose something with an AirTag attached, you can (anonymously and privately) enlist the help of every other iPhone on the planet to try and work out where it is. AirTags don't have location reporting built in, but they can connect to nearby iPhones.

It's a really useful feature, but it also means these trackers can be marked as lost by their owners, and then used to keep tabs on someone's location (through their bag, car or coat, for example). It's an issue for all Bluetooth trackers like this, but the ubiquity of iPhones – especially in the US – means it's a particular problem for AirTags.

The solution Apple has deployed is to alert users when an AirTag that isn't theirs is following them around. Apple has also pushed out an Android app to do the same job on smartphones that aren't iPhones.

It's a needed safeguard, but from the new report in the Wall Street Journal it appears it's not always easy to detect when an AirTag is nearby, especially in crowded urban areas. It's reasonable to assume that the technology and the associated algorithms will improve over time, making this issue a temporary blip.

David Nield
Freelance Contributor

Dave is a freelance tech journalist who has been writing about gadgets, apps and the web for more than two decades. Based out of Stockport, England, on TechRadar you'll find him covering news, features and reviews, particularly for phones, tablets and wearables. Working to ensure our breaking news coverage is the best in the business over weekends, David also has bylines at Gizmodo, T3, PopSci and a few other places besides, as well as being many years editing the likes of PC Explorer and The Hardware Handbook.