- Soaring thefts of Kias and Hyundais by joyriding teens could cost over a half-billion dollars.
- The cars lack an inexpensive security feature, and TikTok videos showed how to steal them.
- Owners and car insurers are suing, and the overall cost estimate came from the insurers.
In cities across the country, thefts of Hyundai and Kia vehicles have skyrocketed. In some cases, the culprits are joyriding teens who post about their exploits on TikTok.
Now some drivers are trying to get Kia and Hyundai to pay the tab, saying the security features were illegally lax. And recently, auto insurers made a preliminary estimate of the total cost: $500 million to $600 million.
The number, which was included in a court filing earlier this month, appears to be the first time anyone has publicly put a price tag on the destructive trend, which has led auto thefts to spike from Seattle to New York City.
Hyundai and Kia “are just looking at, ‘how much could this cost us?’ and they have hard numbers on that,” said Marianne Jennings, who teaches business students at Arizona State University.
Many Kias and Hyundais don’t have a common security feature
While the most commonly stolen vehicles in America are Chevrolet and Ford pickup trucks, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, thefts of Kia and Hyundai vehicles have been on the rise. Some cities have been especially hard-hit; last year, more than half of the 8,096 cars stolen in Milwaukee were Hyundais and Kias, WTMJ-TV reported.
The rate of auto theft has generally fallen over the past 30 years, according to data gathered by the FBI from thousands of police departments. But last year, the number of vehicles stolen in the US hit a 15-year high.
The spread of technology like immobilizers, which prevent a car from starting unless a driver uses a chipped key, has played a role in the decline. But in many Kia and Hyundai models, which lack immobilizers, thieves have found it easy to rip the cover off a steering column and turn a switch to start the engine.
“This is a nationwide problem that cries out for a solution, and we’re working actively to try to move that forward in whatever ways we can get Hyundai and Kia to participate,” said Ken McClain, a lawyer who represents drivers who are suing the two automakers.
The trend started in 2021, when a TikTok user posted a video showing how a thief could bring a Kia’s engine to life by turning an internal switch with a simple tool like a USB cable. On TikTok, the thieves often called themselves “Kia Boys” or used the hashtag #kiaboyz. Since then, TikTok and YouTube have removed some how-to videos for car thieves, but it hasn’t made the problem go away.
Kia and Hyundai have rolled out software updates that are meant to make the affected cars harder to steal. But actually installing the updates in a reported 3.8 million Kias and 4.5 million Hyundais is another story, and state regulators have urged the carmakers to recall the impacted vehicles.
The automakers have insisted that they’re not at fault, and that their cars comply with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, which include anti-theft requirements. Kia called the insurance companies’ complaint “without merit,” and a Hyundai spokesman said the company made immobilizers standard on all its cars starting in November 2021. But insurers and drivers are pressing forward with their cases.
Kia and Hyundai drivers could seek even more money
Steve Berman, a Seattle lawyer who is working with McClain, said total damages could be even higher than the insurers estimated, perhaps in the $700 million to $850 million range.
The figure of up to $600 million is “just for the amounts paid by insurance companies,” Berman said in an email. “Keep in mind this doesn’t include amounts paid by uninsured or those who don’t have theft insurance, about 30 percent of the driving population.”
Carmakers are no strangers to crises, and how they respond can be decisive. After allegations arose about Audis and Toyotas suddenly accelerating, Jennings, at Arizona State, said the hit they took to their reputations came on top of legal costs and regulatory scrutiny. She said Hyundai and Kia should move quickly to get a handle on the case and win back public trust.
“This one’s moving more rapidly, I think, than the other ones,” she said.