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Chicago sues Kia, Hyundai over ‘car theft crisis’

The city of Chicago sued Kia and Hyundai on Thursday, alleging the South Korean automakers have fueled a “car theft crisis” by failing to install standard technology they knew was effective at deterring thieves. 

The companies failed to use the anti-theft technology for years, leading to a spike in thefts that was driven by a viral trend showing just how easy it was to swipe their cars, according to the lawsuit filed in Cook County.

A flood of videos posted to social media showed thieves colloquially known as “Kia Boyz” using USB plugs to start ignitions.

The defect “could have been easily prevented” by equipping vehicles with engine immobilizers, widely used equipment that relies on a smart key with a special chip to start a vehicle, the city argued.

Although the companies have claimed to be “industry leaders in quality and safety” and have routinely installed the technology in other countries, the suit claims that most the Kias and Hyundais sold in the United States between 2011 and 2022 weren’t equipped with engine immobilizers. 

“The failure of Kia and Hyundai to install basic anti-theft prevention technology in these models is sheer negligence, and as a result, a citywide and nationwide crime spree around automobile theft has been unfolding right before our eyes,” Mayor Brandon Johnson said in a statement.

Vehicles manufactured by the two companies accounted for 41% of the city’s 21,425 thefts last year but made up just 7% of the cars on the road. 

The Chicago Police Department has reported 19,062 vehicle thefts so far this year, up more than 100% from the same point last year. Kia and Hyundai models have led the way again, accounting for more than 50% of the vehicles swiped in certain months, the suit states. 

Thieves who target Kias and Hyundais are often teens and young adults “who steal cars to post videos of themselves recklessly joyriding or using the cars to commit other crimes,” according to the suit.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has pinned 14 crashes and eight deaths on the social media trend.

Chicago police also reported that stolen Hyundais were used in more than a dozen murders between October 2022 and January 2023, the suit notes. In May, a Hyundai was used in the killing of Officer Aréanah Preston. 

“This is about saving lives and preventing the violent crimes that these stolen vehicles are used in,” Interim Police Supt. Fred Waller said in a statement. “As law enforcement, we are doing everything we can to prevent these thefts, but these vehicle companies must be held accountable.”

The suit holds that the manufacturers’ response has been “woefully inadequate.” After Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and 21 other state attorneys general urged the firms to take “comprehensive action,” they promised only to provide steering wheel locks to municipalities and roll out software updates.

“These band-aid solution are too little, too late,” states the suit, which notes that Hyundai provided fewer than 20 locks by the end of last year.

The city accuses Kia and Hyundai of deceptive and unfair trade practices, negligence, creating a public nuisance and violating the municipal code.

The city is seeking orders preventing the companies from engaging in such practices and an injunction forcing them to address the underlying problem. That’s in addition to restitution to consumers impacted by the practices, profits the company earned as a result of those practices, fines and other relief. 

James Bell, a Kia spokesperson, said lawsuits filed by Chicago and other municipalities “are without merit,” noting that the NHTSA has found the underlying issue doesn’t constitute a “safety defect” or a violation of federal safety standards.

“Kia continues to take action to help our customers by making it more difficult for criminals to use methods of theft recently popularized on social media to steal certain vehicle models,” Bell said in a statement, pointing to the company’s push to roll out a software update and hand out steering wheel locks. “Kia has been and continues to be willing to work cooperatively with law enforcement agencies in Chicago to combat car theft and the role social media has played in encouraging it, and we remain committed to supporting our customers and to vehicle security.”

Ira Gabriel, a spokesperson for Hyundai, also highlighted efforts to update anti-theft software.

“Hyundai is committed to the comprehensive actions we are undertaking to assist customers and communities affected by the persistent theft of certain vehicles not equipped with push-button ignitions and engine immobilizers,” Gabriel said.

Any Chicagoan who wants to inform the city about their experience with Kia and Hyundai related thefts can email consumerprotection@cityofchicago.org

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