A social media trend showing people how to steal certain cars with USB cords may be fueling a rise in auto thefts in the D.C. region, an investigation by the News4 I-Team found.
Law enforcement data obtained by open records requests show thefts of Kias and Hyundais have risen in several jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia since last year, with data revealing thefts of these vehicles are either on pace to exceed last year’s totals or – in many places examined by the I-Team – already have.
Some police agencies link the increase in Kia and Hyundai thefts to viral TikTok videos showing teens using USB cords like phone chargers to hot wire cars. Known as the “Kia Boyz” challenge, car thieves are targeting older model Hyundai and Kia vehicles that lack a now standard anti-theft security feature.
“It's kind of hard to surprise me anymore after doing this so long, but frankly, this is a bit of a shock,” Laurel (Maryland) Police Chief Russ Hamill said.
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In Laurel alone, auto thefts have more than doubled since last year, from 88 to 188 so far. Kias and Hyundais account for 83 of this year’s thefts, Hamill said, with police confirming nearly 60 of those were stolen with a USB cord.
“We have so many juveniles involved in this,” Hamill said. “These aren't professional car thieves, evidenced by the fact that we're recovering so many of them.”
A spokesperson for Prince George’s County police said the department also has linked that county’s rise in thefts to the social media phenomenon. Its data show a steep increase in thefts of Hyundais and Kias countywide, with thefts of Hyundais up 45% so far from last year and Kias up 71%. Meanwhile, total auto thefts have fallen.
“We do believe that social media is driving an increase in these numbers, not only here in Prince George’s County but in states and communities all across the country,” the spokesperson said.
Fairfax County has seen total auto thefts fall nearly a quarter this year compared to last year’s totals, but records show Hyundai thefts have risen 25% and Kia thefts 55%. A police spokesman could not say whether investigations have linked the increase to the social media trend.
In Arlington County, which typically only sees a few hundred cars stolen each year, total auto thefts have slightly risen, while Hyundai thefts are up 67% and Kia thefts are up 160%. Still, a police spokesperson said the department hasn’t found a link to the Tik Tok trend.
In Montgomery County, thefts of both vehicle brands are on track to exceed last year’s totals. Data wasn’t available in the District.
“The vehicles that are targeted are not the typical vehicles that are theft targets,” said Matt Moore, who analyzes auto theft data for the Highway Loss Data Institute.
Moore said Hyundai and Kia lagged years behind other manufacturers in making engine immobilizers, a security device that prevents a car from starting without the proper key or fob nearby, standard in its vehicles. That, he said, has left the older models more vulnerable to theft.
“If you understand how to do it, and apparently social media has really helped to disseminate how to do this, you can get in the vehicle and in a very short amount of time be on your way without having a key,” Moore said.
Moore said in model year 2015, about 96% of vehicles from other manufacturers had an immobilizer as a standard equipment, but only about 25% of Hyundai and Kia vehicles had standard immobilizers.
What’s more, in a December 2021 report, his organization found theft claim frequencies for Kias and Hyundais “were almost 80% higher than that of all other manufacturers combined” in the first half of last year.
Class action lawsuits have since been filed across the country, alleging the lack of a standard immobilizer is a defect that makes the vehicles more vulnerable to theft.
Spokespersons for both Kia and Hyundai said they are concerned about the social media trend apparently fueling thefts of the vehicles nationwide but said their vehicles meet or exceed Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and now include engine immobilizers as standard equipment.
Hyundai made the security feature standard in its vehicles late last year, while the Kia spokesman said all 2022 Kia models had an immobilizer applied at the beginning of the model year or as a running change.
The companies also said they are providing steering wheel locks to police in impacted areas and developing software updates to secure these targeted vehicles. Hyundai is also selling a glass break sensor security kit to drivers at a cost of $170.
“I don't want to pay anything … You guys should have installed these things before I purchased my vehicle,” said Nichole Robinson, of Laurel, whose 2018 Hyundai Elantra was stolen from her apartment building last month.
Robinson said she learned of the TikTok challenge the day before her car was stolen. The vehicle was found a few days later but was heavily damaged, with the rear window broken and the ignition and steering wheel column destroyed. Nearly a month later, Robinson is still driving a rental car while she waits for her car to be repaired.
“Financially, it's a burden, because I had to come out of pocket for a rental. I also have to come out of pocket for my deductible,” Robinson said. “Nobody wants to spend money they did not plan on spending.”
Robinson said she was previously unaware of the security flaw in her vehicle and would have made sure to purchase an Elantra with an immobilizer had she known of the risk. In the meantime, she’s driving another key-powered Hyundai Elantra while she waits for her car to be returned and is debating whether to buy a new vehicle.
“I am concerned that when I do get my vehicle back that it's just going to be stolen again,” she said.
Reported by Susan Hogan, produced by Katie Leslie, and shot and edited by Steve Jones. News4 reporter Darcy Spencer, producer Tom Lynch and photographer Brooks Meriwether contributed to this report.