A crime wave targeting unsuspecting drivers across the country has now hit many communities across Chicago in a big way.
Thieves are targeting older Hyundai and Kia models, all with a major security flaw in the interior that was revealed a few months ago in a series of videos shared on social media.
Records released to NBC 5 by the Chicago Police Department show that these thefts have skyrocketed since May, accounting for a third of all vehicle thefts reported citywide in the month of August alone.
Adding insult to injury, one survey suggests that automakers may have been able to prevent this from happening years ago by installing a device that most other automakers already did.
The crimes are happening at a time when used, older model vehicles are in high demand, and now some drivers say they would never have chosen these older models if they were prone to a serious safety flaw in them.
“I can’t see my car, it’s gone.”
These are the last words anyone wants to say to start their week, but that was mom-to-be Ashleigh Schlemmer’s reaction on a recent Monday morning.
On September 19, Schlemmer he told NBC’s CT Responds she remembered parking her 2011 Hyundai Elantra in front of her apartment complex in Seymore, Conn. and locked it the night before.
However, the next morning, all that remained was a pile of broken glass and video surveillance confirming that the thieves had broken into her car through the window and driven away.
“It’s not something you want to deal with when you’re eight months pregnant,” Schlemmer said, the incident adding a whole new level of stress to her every day.
Schlemmer became one of many victims across the country whose older Hyundai or Kia vehicles were stolen during a recent spate of thefts over the past few months.
Experts and police believe the origins of this recent boom in thefts can be traced back to videos shared on TikTok, with some users calling the crimes the “Kia Hyundai Challenge.”
Police say TikTok users have been sharing how-to videos revealing a major security flaw hidden in Hyundai models made from 2013 to 2021 and Kia models made from 2011 to 2021.
That flaw is the lack of a device called the standard immobilizer, which prevents the car from starting without the key present.
In response to the thefts, TikTok said it does not condone such behavior and will continue to remove such videos from its platform.
But auto industry experts believe the damage has already been done, as they closely monitor these thefts in many cities across the US, including Chicago.
Matt Moore is senior vice president of the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), where they study issues such as vehicle technologies and financial issues, including this recent theft trend, which he says came as a surprise.
“Vehicles targeted for theft tend to be either expensive, powerful or pickup trucks,” Moore said, “and these Hyundai and Kia vehicles targeted are neither of those, so it was quite a surprise.”
Chicago has been hit hard by thefts
Unfortunately, the citizens of Chicago are no strangers to these thefts.
Records obtained by NBC 5 Chicago Police Response show that after the TikTok trend took off, the number of Hyundai and Kia models reported stolen across the city increased grew up.
Starting in May, Chicago Police reports show just 46 Hyundai and Kia thefts citywide.
That number jumped to 676 thefts reported in August, the data show.
In fact, during the month of August, stolen Hyundai and Kia vehicles accounted for one-third of all 2,033 motor vehicle thefts reported citywide, according to Chicago Police Department crime statistics.
Some experts believe the current wave of theft could have been prevented.
In a recent HLDI survey Looking at vehicles manufactured in 2015, “immobilizers were standard on 96% of other manufacturers’ vehicles,” while “they are standard on only 26% of Hyundai and Kia vehicle models.”
“Our previous studies show that vehicle theft losses dropped after immobilizers were introduced,” Moore said. “Unfortunately, Hyundai and Kia have lagged behind other automakers in standard equipment.”
Neither Hyundai nor Kia responded to NBC 5’s request for a statement regarding the HLDI findings.
Kia told NBC 5 that “all 2022 models and trims have an immobilizer implemented either at the beginning of the year or as an ongoing change.”
Hyundai said engine immobilizers will become standard on all Hyundai vehicles manufactured starting in November 2021.
In separate statements, Hyundai and Kia told NBC 5 that while they are “concerned about these particular thefts,” all of their vehicles “meet or exceed federal motor vehicle safety standards.”
The makers also shared that they are working on a software update for these older models, but no firm release date has been set.
In response to the spike in thefts, Kia said it is working closely with local law enforcement in the affected areas to provide steering wheel locking devices at no cost to concerned owners of steel key Kia vehicles that were not originally equipped with an immobilizer.
Hyundai told NBC 5 that it offers a “glass break sensor safety kit … available for purchase and installation on Hyundai dealerships and Compustar Authorized Installers.”
Experts like Moore believe that installing standard immobilizers in vehicles from the start could be a big step towards preventing such crimes.
“You never know what’s going to become popular from a theft perspective in terms of these random issues. However, having standard immobilizers certainly helps reduce the incidence of whole vehicle theft,” said Moore.
Some of these victims could be facing a double whammy, Moore said, because owners with older vehicles may have already dropped the comprehensive insurance that covers the remaining vehicle.
“If they dropped comprehensive coverage and their vehicle [is] stolen, they won’t have the coverage to pay for that loss,” Moore said.
Back in Connecticut, seconds after Schlemer reported her stolen car to the police, it was discovered a few miles away, the engine running with the doors open, the radio on and the windows broken.
Repairs are expected to cost between $4,000 and $5,000, Schlemmer said, still shocked that someone would even bother to steal her car, all for the pleasure of driving it.
“I never thought people would just wake up and say, ‘Hey, let’s go to TikTok, find a video, [and] steal a car,’ Schlemmer said.