A rise in thefts of Kia and Hyundai vehicles began to take root in the Midwest, hitting Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota relentlessly since last year.
But the trend exploded over the summer as a result of viral challenge on TikTok, and may now be fuelling illegal activity in Buffalo — and revealing a deadly side that has local law enforcement on high alert.
Four people between the ages of 14 and 19 died Monday morning in a single-vehicle, rollover crash where the westbound Kensington Expressway meets the on-ramp for the Scajaquada Expressway. The 16-year-old driver now faces a felony charge in the crash.
When Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia revealed Monday that the stolen vehicle was a Kia Sportage reported stolen the night before, he referenced a TikTok and YouTube trend that has instructed viewers how to hotwire and steal Kia and Hyundai vehicles with traditional key ignition using mundane tools, such as a USB cable found on iPhone chargers. The commissioner said the social media challenge could have inspired the theft.
The original TikTok users that began the trend were called "the kia boyz," a term that now covers anyone involved in the criminal activity. A search for "the kia boyz" on TikTok indicates the subject has attracted 5.9 billion views, and while representatives from that social media platform have said there's increased vigilance about removing these instructional videos, it is not difficult to find users bragging about stolen-car conquests, or other users showing the aftermath of what car thieves have done after stealing their Kias or Hyundais. Videos on YouTube and TikTok show drivers of what are purported to be stolen Kias driving erratically and at high speeds through neighbourhoods.
Chris Gallant, former communications chair and current associate professor at Hilbert College, spoke Tuesday about the viral nature and popularity of TikTok, the most downloaded application in the world over the last three years, according to CNET.com. He said the platform is a "double-edged sword" in the same way as other social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
"It can be used for good or used for evil," Gallant said, "and it needs to be regulated."
News of the Kia Challenge has spread widely, even to Gallant's 77-year-old mother, who is reluctant to take her Kia out of the garage.
"It strikes fear into a lot of people," Gallant said of the trend.
Experts have connected the popularity of the Kia Challenge with national statistics regarding the make of stolen vehicles. Last month, CNN shared a Highway Loss Data Institute study that revealed 2015-2019 models of Kias and Hyundais were stolen in 2021 at nearly twice the rate of any other car of similar age.
Buffalo is not the only city in which fatalities or serious injuries have been linked to stolen Kia and Hyundai vehicles. WISN, a TV station in Milwaukee, Wisc., reported about the death of a 16-year-old who crashed a stolen Kia in June. A 70-year-old woman in St. Paul, Minn., was killed in a crash involving a stolen Kia in July, Fox 9 in Minnesota reported.
The two manufacturers now find themselves in legal hot water.
In late September, Kia America and Hyundai Motor America were served a class action lawsuit in southern California, with MLG Attorneys at Law representing three plaintiffs against the two manufacturers. For many Kias built from 2011 to 2021, and Hyundais built between 2015-2021, the lawsuit accuses Kia and Hyundai of "blatantly valuing profits over the safety and security of their customers" by remaining among the few automobile manufacturers to not include engine immobilisers. These are electronic security parts in engine control units that restrict a vehicle from starting without a manufacturer's key.
The three plaintiffs in the complaint, who said their Kia and Hyundai vehicles were stolen "by thieves exploiting the defect" between Aug 10 and Sept 11, are seeking damages and injunctive relief for themselves and the subset of Kia and Hyundai vehicle owners. The complaint adds that Hyundai and Kia considered adding engine immobilizers for theft prevention reasons in 2007 and 2009, respectively, but ultimately opted not to.
Jonathan Michaels, one of the two MLG attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said Tuesday he was aware of the fatal crash in Buffalo that was believed to be connected to the same issues in the lawsuit. He said the trend of stolen Kias and Hyundais does not appear to be slowing down, and that its motive veers from what's typical.
"Stealing cars is usually for economic gain, but this is more done for sport," said Michaels, adding that his office has fielded more than 500 related calls this month. "They're motivated by the challenge and are doing it for fun."
MLG, Michaels said, is demanding a recall of 10 million cars in the lawsuit, which would be the third largest class action suit ever, he said. The southern California lawsuit is accompanied by similar suits from Illinois and Minnesota.
Kia and Hyundai have added engine immobilisers for the majority of their 2022 and all of their 2023 models, Forbes reported.
Gramaglia's reference to the Kia Challenge is a microcosm of a bigger problem of stolen vehicles in Western New York, with suburban police departments such as East Aurora this summer warning residents to not leave their key fobs in unlocked cars. A 2021 Buffalo News report on car thefts in the City of Buffalo noted almost a quarter of those arrested for car theft were under 17 years old, and many were arrested and released for the act multiple times. – The Buffalo News, N.Y./Tribune News Service