Rumor: Criminals Use Key Ring Chips to Track Victims

Debunked Internet Rumor

The Silicon Roundabout In Old Street
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This online rumor warns that criminals are distributing free key rings, key fobs, or key chains equipped with tracking chips enabling said criminals to follow potential victims and rob them. While this rumor started circluating in 2008, it crops up again periodically.

If you receive a similar email or social media posting, check the facts before you forward it on to all of your friends and family. It was debunked soon after it appeared, but online rumors never seem to die, or even truly fade away.

Description: Online rumor
Circulating since: Aug. 2008
Status: False (details below)

Example #1:
Email contributed April 23, 2010:

Subject: CRIMINAL'S NEW STRATEGY: Handing out Key Rings as Tracking Device

WARN YOUR COLLEAGUES, FAMILY & FRIENDS TODAY!!!!

*Don't know if it's true, but best to be on the safe side.*

For your information please:

There is a syndicate of criminals presenting themselves as sales promoters who are giving free key-rings/holders at petrol stations or parking lots.

Those key ring/holders have a tracking device chip which allows them to follow you. Please don’t accept them.

They select their seemingly well-to-do potential victims and if you accept, then you will be in for their tricks. The key holders are very beautiful to resist accepting but remember you may end up paying more than the key holder including the risk to your life.

Please advise your family members as well.


Example #2

This earlier email attributed the plot to sources in Africa. 
Email contributed Oct. 6, 2008:

SECURITY ALERT - Nigerians at Gas Station

Syndicates made up of Ghanaians and Nigerians are giving free key-rings at gas stations. Don't accept them, as the key rings have a tracking device which allows them to follow you.

Forward this alert to friends and family. A friend alerted me on the above and indicated that these guys just select their seemingly well-to-do potential victims and play the trick.

The key holders I am told are too beautiful to resist collecting but remember you may end up paying more including your life if you can't resist.

Analysis of the Keyring Tracking Device Internet Rumor

This baseless rumor grew out of a 2008 promotional campaign during which Caltex South Africa, a subsidiary of Chevron, gave out solar-powered flashing key fobs to advertise its diesel fuel. Each fob contained an LED, a battery, and a computer chip.

Apparently, someone dismantled one of the devices, found the chip inside, and jumped to the mistaken conclusion that it was some sort of RFID transmitter. The rumor that it was actually a "tracking device" used by criminals was promulgated on a radio talk show and quickly found its way onto the Internet.

Caltex responded with a statement:

"These key rings serve no other purpose than that of creating brand (Caltex Power Diesel) awareness. They are not designed to serve as any form of tracking devices and should under no circumstances be confused as such."

Despite this, the rumor continues to circulate via forwarded email and social media postings, as seen in the 2010 examples and sightings in 2014.

Moral of the Story

Before you forward any such rumors, do a web search for the text verbatim. You are likely to come up with other reported instances such as the examples above. Then you can be assured that this is not a new scam.

Sources and further reading:

Media Statement Regarding Caltex Power Diesel Key Rings
Chevron South Africa, 22 August 2008

The Great Keyring Paranoia Prank
Mail & Guardian, 28 August 2008