TikTok challenge sparks rise in Kia and Hyundai car thefts

A dangerous call spreading on TikTok and other social media platforms is putting car owners and police departments across the country on alert, suggesting that young teenagers steal certain cars off the street using a USB cable.

Target? Some makes and models of 2010-2021 Kia and Hyundai vehicles that use a mechanical key rather than a key fob and button to start the vehicle. Investigators told CNBC that the trend started last year and the number of stolen cars continues to rise across the country.

In St. Petersburg, Florida, police said more than a third of all car thefts since mid-July involved a TikTok challenge. Los Angeles officials say the viral trend has led to an 85% increase in Hyundai and Kias car theft compared to last year.

It’s the same story in Chicago, according to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart.

“Only in our jurisdiction, [thefts of certain models are] increased by more than 800% in the last month,” he said. “We don’t see the end.”

The trend encourages teenagers to steal cars from the street by breaking into the car, ripping off the steering column, and plugging the car in with a USB cable similar to the one used to charge a phone.

“The viral nature of the way it became popular on social media – it sped it up like we’ve never seen it before,” Dart said. “[The perpetrators are] do it in 20-30 seconds. It’s as old fashioned as you can imagine.”

Dart told CNBC the thieves are mostly young teenagers, some not even old enough to drive legally. Stolen cars are often used for pleasure trips or other crimes and then left on the side of the road, he said.

“We had an 11-year-old who was one of our most prolific car thieves… the idea that they can drive is fantastic,” Dart said.

Thieves are posting videos of stealing and driving cars online using the “Kia Boys” hashtag, which has over 33 million views on TikTok. The social media company said in a statement that it “does not condone such behavior that violates our policies and will be removed if found on our platform.”

Illinois resident Karen Perkins said her 2019 Kia Sorrento was stolen in front of her apartment on August 6.

“I looked out the window and realized my car was gone,” Perkins said.

A few days later, she was in a rental car at a red light when, according to her, her missing Kia drove past her.

“I saw a teenager sitting in front,” Perkins said. “I drove around the block… five kids jumped in my car — that’s when I panicked — like I was going to lose my car forever.”

Perkins told CNBC she went hunting to find her Kia. A few hours later, she found it abandoned on the side of the road and called the police. She said that the abandoned Kia was badly damaged.

“They smashed the front of my car…damaged the bumper,” Perkins said. “They even wrote on my ceiling… it says ‘hot car’.”

Tom Gerszewski, a filmmaker from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, tracks viral crime on his YouTube channel under “Documentary about the Kia boys,“, which has already exceeded 3.7 million views.

“It’s something they do for fun after school,” Gerszewski told CNBC. “They don’t really have much empathy for the people they do it with.”

Ken McClain, a Missouri lawyer, says some of the blame for the theft falls on automakers – Kia and Hyundai – who claim the companies make cars that are too easy to steal.

McClain calls the problem a “defect”. So far, his firm has filed class action lawsuits in 12 states: California, Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Ohio and Texas. He is also preparing to apply in seven more states.

“We get dozens of calls a day,” McClain said. “Manufacturer[s] you have to pay for it.”

Kia and Hyundai were unable to comment on how many vehicles are included in the make and model year and could potentially be at risk.

A Kia spokesperson said the company was concerned about the increase in theft and had provided steering wheel lock devices to law enforcement in the affected areas.

“Unfortunately, criminals are using social media to attack vehicles without engine immobilizer in a coordinated effort,” the spokesman said.

“While no car can be theft-proof, criminals look for cars equipped exclusively with a steel key and a turn-start ignition system. Most Kia vehicles in the United States are “button to start”, making them harder to steal. All 2022 Kia models and trim levels have an immobilizer applied either at the beginning of the model year or as a replacement.”

A Hyundai spokesman said the company is making a similar effort to roll out steering wheel locks and that the company will begin selling the security kit next month.

According to Dart of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, old-school anti-theft devices with wheel locks can go a long way in deterring theft.

“It makes maneuvering the car almost impossible,” he said.

– CNBC Special Page Peter Ferrars contributed to this report.

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