Your smartphone comes with built-in location services, which are useful if you lose it or if you use an app that needs to know your location. But what if you don’t want your phone to be tracked? Can the phone be located if you turn off location services? The answer is yes, it’s possible to track mobile phones even if location services are turned off.
Turning off the location service on your phone can help conceal your location. This is important if you don’t want third parties knowing where you are or being able to track your movement. However, a smartphone can still be tracked through other techniques that reveal its general location.
This article explains how your phone can be tracked and what you can do to enhance your mobile security.
How can a phone be tracked?
Whether you have an iOS or Android phone, there are ways it can be tracked even if location services are turned off. You may have used some of these yourself to find a lost or stolen phone. For example, the Find My iPhone app uses Bluetooth to help you find an iPhone even if it’s offline.
If you have an Android phone and the Find My Device app, you can log in to your Google account and use Google Maps to check your phone’s location history.
Here are four ways that your phone could be tracked:
The United States has more than 307,000 cell towers. When you use your phone, signals travel back and forth to the nearest cell tower. Cell carriers can calculate the general area of your phone by measuring the time it takes for a signal to travel back and forth.
Carriers use cell tower triangulation for a more accurate reading, which combines location data from three cell towers. This technology was developed to help 911 operators locate callers. It pinpoints the phone’s location within a 300-meter area.
A smartphone that has Wi-Fi enabled communicates with nearby Wi-Fi networks even if it’s not connected to one. Your device automatically scans Wi-Fi access points nearby and notes the signal strength.
When using public Wi-Fi, the provider commonly asks you to agree to location tracking. That Wi-Fi provider will then record your location whenever you’re in range of one of its hot spots.
To use public Wi-Fi while protecting your privacy, it’s a good idea to connect with a VPN like McAfee’s Safe Connect VPN. This software protects your data using bank-grade encryption to keep your online activity private. The VPN also keeps your IP address and physical location private.
Cell site simulators
Cell site simulators — otherwise known as stingrays— mimic cellphone towers. They trick your phone into pinging it, transmitting its location, and identifying information. Stingrays cause cellphones to connect to them rather than to legitimate cell towers by transmitting a stronger signal than that from the cell towers.
Law enforcement officers often use stingrays to locate and track the movement of potential suspects. While attempting to connect to a specific individual, stingrays connect data from all phones in the vicinity of the device.
Malware or spyware
A device that is infected with malware or spyware can track your location even if your location settings are turned off. Malware can also record your online activities, allow cybercriminals to steal personal information, or slow down your operating system.
To help protect your mobile device, consider getting a comprehensive security tool like McAfee Security for Mobile. It works for both Android and iOS devices and comes with an antivirus app that scans for threats and malware and blocks them in real-time.
Can you tell if your phone is being tracked?
While many reasons for tracking a phone’s location information are benign — such as seeing where a loved one might be — scammers and hackers may track phones in an attempt to steal personal data.
Luckily, some telltale signs can help you spot whether your phone is being tracked.
When your phone has spyware, the program continuously runs in the background and drains your battery. A battery that is losing power faster than normal is either due to an old battery or spyware.
Check your battery health to see if it is still strong. If you use an iPhone, follow these steps to check battery health. You’ll see a maximum capacity score that shows your battery power compared to when it was new. An older phone with a battery capacity of 75% could explain why your battery loses power throughout the day. If your battery capacity is 95% or 100% and it drains quickly, however, a virus could be to blame.
It’s a slightly different process to check the battery health on an Android device. Depending on the phone brand, you may need to download an app.
Using apps with high processing demands can cause your mobile device to heat up. A spyware app that tracks your device’s location will use GPS, which causes the phone to work harder and overheat. If you’re using your smartphone normally and it overheats, it could be a sign of malware.
If there are unfamiliar apps on your phone, someone may have tampered with it. The mystery app could be spyware.
If your phone launches activities that you didn’t initiate, an app might be running in the background. In some cases, malware needs to reboot your phone to install updates or change the phone’s settings.
A phone that automatically restarts lights up for no reason or makes noises during calls or texts could be infected with malware.
Phone tracking FAQs
Here are answers to some common questions about phone tracking.
Can a phone be tracked if it’s turned off?
A phone that is turned off is difficult to track because it stops sending signals to cell towers. However, the service provider or internet provider can show the last location once it’s switched back on.
Can a phone be tracked with no cell service/connection?
Even without cell service, Android devices and iPhones can be tracked. Your phone’s mapping apps can track your phone’s location without an internet connection.
The GPS works in two ways: It uses Assisted GPS or A-GPS when you have a data connection. This uses the locations of cellphone towers and known Wi-Fi networks to figure out where you are. It also uses data from GPS satellites for more precise information. The A-GPS needs data service to work, but the GPS radio can receive satellite information without data service.
Can a phone be tracked when it’s in airplane mode?
Yes, your phone can be tracked when it’s in airplane mode. While it does turn off Wi-Fi and cellular services, airplane mode doesn’t turn off GPS (a different technology that sends and receives signals from GPS satellites). You’ll have to disable GPS on your device and turn on airplane mode to prevent your phone from being tracked.
Protect your mobile security with McAfee
Understanding how your phone can be tracked can help you protect your privacy. For greater peace of mind, though, it can help to have a mobile security tool like McAfee Security for Mobile to keep your Android or Apple device free from spyware.
Our all-inclusive mobile security tool safeguards your digital life by offering safe browsing, a secure VPN, and antivirus software. It actively protects you from malicious apps, like spyware, and unwanted visitors.
With a dedicated mobile security app, you can use your phone the way you want without worrying about cybercriminals tracking your information.