Some Hyundai and Kia cars and SUVs lack a “key” anti-theft device, making them easy targets for car thieves.
One insurance group says these cars are almost twice as likely to be stolen as the rest of the auto industry because their engines don’t have “immobilizer” systems, which are an electronic security device that prevent the car from being started without the right key.
The thefts apparently began two years ago in the Milwaukee area and spread to several Midwestern cities and as far north as Colorado and New Mexico after instructional videos appeared on social media.
The Highway Loss Data Institute, a division of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, found that Hyundais and Kias without immobilizers had a vehicle theft claims rate of 2.18 per 1,000 insured vehicle-years. The rest of the industry combined had a rate of 1.21. An insured vehicle year corresponds to an insured vehicle for one year.
The institute, which published its findings on Thursday, compared vehicles from model years 2015 to 2019. It examined vehicle theft claims from 2021 onwards.
Chip keys or transponders, which appeared in the mid-1980s, communicate with a sensor in the vehicle’s ignition switch. If the registration code on the chip matches the ID code stored in the car’s computer system, the engine will start. If the codes don’t match, the engine won’t start, providing an important layer of protection against car thieves.
Immobilizers are not included in cheaper models
Transponder-based immobilizers are not present in several lower-priced versions of vehicles from the two South Korean automakers, such as the Kia Rio and Sportage, as well as the Hyundai Accent, the institute said.
“Our previous studies show that vehicle theft losses have decreased after the introduction of immobilizers,” said Matt Moore, the institute’s senior vice president. “Unfortunately, Hyundai and Kia lag behind other automakers when it comes to making them standard equipment.”
In the 2015 model year, immobilizers were standard on 96% of models from other manufacturers, according to the institute. But they were only standard on 26% of Hyundai and Kia models. Automakers haven’t explained their decision not to fit immobilizers on some models.
Theft car hacks are going viral
Videos show thieves prying off the ignition covers on Hyundai and Kia vehicles, then starting them with a screwdriver or USB cable and driving away.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper, 66% of the 10,476 vehicles stolen in Milwaukee last year were Hyundais or Kias. The number of thefts has slowed in the city so far this year. As of Sept. 12, 6,048 vehicles had been seized, 58% of which were Hyundais or Kias, Milwaukee police said Thursday.
A 17-year-old thief suspect in viral video of Kia thefts has been arrested after police used the video and an anonymous tip to track him down, the Journal Sentinel reported. He faces up to 22 years in prison.
Hyundai and Kia both acknowledged in statements that thieves steal some of their vehicles and said they meet federal safety standards. “It’s unfortunate that criminals are using social media to target vehicles without immobilizers in a coordinated effort,” Kia said.
All 2022 Kias received immobilizers either at the beginning of or during the model year. Hyundai said that all models produced after November 1, 2021 will come standard with immobilizers.
Kia says it is working to provide free steering wheel locks to owners in affected areas to deter theft. Hyundai said it is also making the locks available to local police to distribute to Hyundai owners and will start selling a security kit targeting the thieves’ methods in October.
The institute’s Moore said the vulnerable Hyundais and Kias are among the top 20 most popular vehicles for thieves, a distinction usually reserved for high-performance or expensive vehicles or pickups. The Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat had the highest rate of theft claims.
Many of the vulnerable Hyundais and Kias are often bought by people on low incomes. “These are relatively inexpensive vehicles when bought new,” Moore said. Owners of some models might have dropped comprehensive insurance to save money and might have had to replace the cars themselves, he said.
To deter theft, owners should roll up windows, lock doors, and take the key or fob with them, says the National Insurance Crime Bureau. You should park in well-lit areas or in a garage. If they must park outside, owners should consider installing motion-sensing lights.