You may have read about the recent lawsuits against Kia and Hyundai in New York and other US cities. But what exactly brought us to this point? As with many viral topics these days, it all started on TikTok.
During the pandemic, bored, tech-savvy teenagers started posting videos online showing how to steal Kias and Hyundais. Thefts of these cars began to increase dramatically across the country, and soon the social media challenge where people filmed themselves doing something (like throwing a bucket of ice water over their head) and then posting the video online as proof it had caused fatal car crashes, a class-action lawsuit, and even drops in the stock prices of automakers. Kia and Hyundai both began offering software updates and recalling cars, but the damage was done.
The Kia Boys and the TikTok challenge
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a huge number of social media challenges, especially among children, simply due to boredom and extra time. In late 2021, the Kia Boys started going viral on TikTok. They were participating in a social media challenge that involved stealing a Kia and Hyundai using a specific method and posting the results on TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube.
These teenagers, who have stolen tens of thousands of cars, are mostly from Milwaukee and Columbus, Ohio, though the trend has since spread nationwide. The topic even made it into songs, with rappers bragging about stealing Kias.
The Kia Boys are not an official organization but rather a general collective of teenagers who have been using a particular hack to steal cars. Many are too young to even have a driver’s license. They don’t do it for the money or even to keep their cars, they do it for fun, for the joy rides.
These teenagers not only steal cars and share the videos on social media, but they drive cars recklessly, causing property damage and fatal accidents. Thieves usually abandon cars, which are often burgled and filled with empty bottles of alcohol.
At least one arrest has been made in connection with these crimes. In June 2022, Markell Hughes was arrested in Milwaukee after crashing a stolen red Hyundai. The police were able to match the vehicle’s license plate to the one that had been reported stolen. They also identified Hughes and the vehicle in a YouTube video titled Kia Boys Documentary (A Story of Teenage Car Theft), which now has over 6 million views.
What makes these cars so easy to steal?
The security flaw that led to this issue stems from Kias’ cost-saving measures and lack of regulations. In Canada, for example, cars manufactured after September 2007 are required to have an immobiliser, a common anti-theft device that prevents a car from being started without the smart key present. But this regulation does not exist in the United States.
Kia Boys can easily steal Kia models produced from 2011 to 2021 by accessing the steering wheel column. The method is probably simpler than you think: all the Kia Boys have to do is break a window, open the steering column and attach a charging cable to a small metal protrusion under the ignition cylinder, which is perfectly sized to fit a USB-A plug. Then just twist the plug and the car starts.
In Milwaukee and Columbus, where the phenomenon is most evident, you’ll now see most Kias sporting a steering lock. Kia and Hyundai dealerships in these cities are reportedly overwhelmed with all the damaged cars the owners find abandoned. It’s also causing a parts shortage.
With the concentration of Kia thieves in Milwaukee, we can already see the impact there.
In 2019, the Milwaukee Police Department reported about 3,500 vehicles stolen, with Kias and Hyundai accounting for just 6 percent. In 2021, the number of stolen cars in Milwaukee increased nearly 200% to 10,500. Of these, 67 percent were Kia or Hyundai. That means the number of stolen Kias and Hyundais in Milwaukee has increased more than 3,000% in two years, no small feat.
Most of these auto thefts in Milwaukee occurred in the Kilbourn Town/Westtown neighborhood, where approximately 1,000 vehicles were stolen in the past year. This neighborhood already ranked sixth for most car accidents in Milwaukee in 2018-2022.
The trend isn’t limited to its Milwaukee origins and has spread to cities across the nation. In August 2022, Chicago officials reported an 800 percent increase in Kia and Hyundai thefts over the previous year.
The automakers settle a class action lawsuit
The thefts of Kia and Hyundai recently made headlines as they reached a $200 million settlement. New York City recently sued both South Korean automakers for causing a public nuisance, according to federal court in Manhattan. The lawsuit argues that by not installing devices to prevent theft in their cars, Kia and Hyundai are contributing to the car theft epidemic.
The class action lawsuit was settled in May 2023, with Hyundai and Kia ordered to pay $200 million, compensating about 9 million people for their losses. Additional lawsuits were filed by other cities, including Baltimore, Seattle, Milwaukee and St. Louis.
Both automakers have responded to the recent bad press by making safety improvements. Hyundai has promised that all vehicles manufactured after November 2021 will now be equipped with ignition immobilizers and has started selling a security kit that allegedly targets the theft method used. Both Kia and Hyundai also released a free anti-theft software update to all vehicle owners in February 2023. Kia also responded by clarifying that most of its current models come with a key fob and start button, making it the hardest cars to steal. For those with mechanically keyed older models, Kia and Hyundai owners can protect their car by purchasing steering wheel locks.
Social media companies have also started to address their role in the situation. TikTok says it doesn’t allow videos promoting car theft and will remove them, but it’s not that simple. There is a gray area of videos that don’t necessarily show crime and therefore don’t break any rules.
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