Thieves Using Bluetooth To Track Laptops and Smartphones To Steal.

As you travel and shop over the holidays, keep in mind that criminals will be working overtime in ways you don’t expect. According to, incidents where thieves are using Bluetooth scanners are increasing. At least, it’s the only conclusion to be drawn in a number of cases where phones and other electronics were stolen from cars.

It’s Like They Knew

Police will generally not comment, and the victimized don’t know for certain – the thieves don’t usually leave behind notes describing their M.O., after all – but all the stories covered in the article involve devices that were either hidden or placed out of sight inside a vehicle. And yet, thieves only stole smartphones and laptops while leaving behind other valuables, like cash and jewelry.

The implication here is that the thieves tried to spend as little time as possible in the vicinity of the crime scene (understandably) and hightailed it as soon as they found what they were looking for. But, how did they know what to look for?

The answer seems to lie in scanning for Bluetooth signals. As anyone who’s used electronc devices knows, Bluetooth is a two-way data stream. Take for example the wireless headphone and its variants. Via its Bluetooth connection, not only does the headphone receive music from the smartphone, it also sends data to the phone (commands to stop, play, skip as well as voice audio if a microphone is present).

Furthermore, it’s also easily seen that Bluetooth announces its presence to the world quite publicly. Go to your phone settings to link your headphone with your phone, and you’ll probably see your target device among a list of unrecognized Bluetooth devices. All those other entries are instances of devices that have their Bluetooth capability turned on.

A thief could potentially park in a shopping mall, wait for a car to pull in, and check whether something shows up on his smartphone’s Bluetooth list. Seeing that something does show up, he ensures that no one’s around, breaks into the car, rummages through the usual places (under a blanket, if there is one; under the passenger-side seats; glove compartment; etc), finds the loot, and makes an exit.

An Old Crime Upgraded for the Times

Breaking into parked cars is an old crime. It’s taken place for decades, and some pros still do it this way: they sit in their own parked vehicles and watch other cars come in, say, to a shopping mall’s garage. In certain cases, security-conscious drivers will transfer valuables into their trunks before heading inside to the mall. Such behavior acts as a signal that something worthwhile has been placed in the car’s trunk. A driver could also fumble with a blanket (in order to cover something) or duck to place something beneath the seats (they’d momentarily disappear from the window while seated and reappear), actions that can be easily observed and, again, act as signals to thieves.

And while there is no guarantee that whatever was hidden can be easily turned into cash (perhaps a laptop was moved to the trunk; perhaps it was a bag full of monopoly money), the risk to reward ratio is higher than breaking into a random car, especially if you’re planning on doing it more than once.

With some way to further filter out undesirable instances, such as using the presence or absence of Bluetooth signals, that risk-reward ratio increases significantly: You could end up with a piece of crap (e.g., a laptop from 7 years ago), but you won’t end up stealing a bag full of school notes.

Thus, it only makes sense that thieves would use this… assuming it works. There is, apparently, those who believe that this is a modern urban myth. Then again, Wired does quote a police officer: “Right now we do know that thieves are utilizing them [Bluetooth scanners].”

How to Counter Act

Unfortunately, the only way to counter Bluetooth scanning is to turn Bluetooth off (and on when needed). The annoyance of doing so means the action will be unlikely and unwelcome because it will impact how devices work (the seamless magic of connecting to wireless earphones would be gone, for example). This is especially true when one considers the currently miniscule odds of falling victim to Bluetooth scanning.

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