Thieves key on hack that makes Hyundai, Kia cars vulnerable

Thieves key on hack that makes Hyundai, Kia cars vulnerable

Hyundai Kia Thefts (Colin Boyle/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Hyundai Kia Thefts (Colin Boyle/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Some Hyundai and Kia cars and SUVs lack a “key” anti-theft feature, and thieves know it.

An insurance industry group says these cars are stolen at nearly twice the rate of the rest of the auto industry because their keys lack computer chips for anti-theft systems.

The thefts apparently started in the Milwaukee area two years ago and spread to several cities in the Midwest and as far away as Colorado and New Mexico after instructional videos surfaced on social media.

The Highway Loss Data Institute, a unit of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, found that Hyundais and Kias without immobilizers had a vehicle theft claim 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 is equal to one vehicle insured for one year.

The institute, which published its findings on Thursday, compared cars from 2015 to 2019 model years. It studied vehicle theft requirements from 2021.

Chip keys, which began appearing in the 1990s, communicate with another chip in the ignition switch. If they match, the motors will start. If they don’t match, a thief can’t start the engine.

Keys do not have immobilizers in several cheaper versions of vehicles from the two South Korean automakers such as Kia Rio and Sportage and Hyundai Accent, the institute said.

“Our previous studies show that vehicle theft losses decreased after immobilizers were introduced,” said Matt Moore, senior vice president at the institute. “Unfortunately, Hyundai and Kia have lagged behind other automakers in making them standard equipment.”

In the 2015 model year, immobilizers were standard on 96% of other manufacturers’ models, the institute said. But they were standard on only 26% of Hyundai and Kia models. The car manufacturers have not explained their decision not to include immobilizers on certain models.

Videos show thieves prying the ignition covers off Hyundai and Kia cars, then using a screwdriver or USB cable to start them and drive away.

Last year in Milwaukee, 66% of the 10,476 stolen vehicles were Hyundais or Kias, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper. The number of thefts has decreased in the city so far this year. Through Sept. 12, 6,048 vehicles were seized, but 58% of them were Hyundais or Kias, Milwaukee police said Thursday.

A 17-year-old thief suspect in a viral Kia theft video was arrested after police used the video and an anonymous tip to track him down, the Journal Sentinel reported. He could face up to 22 years in prison.

Hyundai and Kia both admitted in statements that thieves steal some of their vehicles and said they meet federal safety standards. “It is unfortunate that criminals are using social media to target cars without immobilizers in a coordinated effort,” Kia said.

All 2022 Kias received immobilizers either at the start of or during the model year. Hyundai said all models produced after November 1, 2021 have immobilizers as standard equipment.

Kia says it is working to provide steering wheel locks at no cost to authorities in affected areas to deter theft. Hyundai said it also supplies the locks to the police and that in October it will start selling a security kit that targets the thieves’ methods.

The institute’s Moore said the vulnerable Hyundais and Kias rank among the 20 most popular vehicles with thieves, a distinction normally reserved for powerful or expensive vehicles, or pickup trucks. The Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat had the highest rate of theft claims.

Many of the vulnerable Hyundais and Kias are often bought by people with lower incomes. “These are relatively inexpensive vehicles when purchased new,” Moore said. Owners of some of the models may have dropped comprehensive insurance to save money, and may have had to replace the cars on their own, he said.

To prevent theft, owners should roll up windows, lock doors and take the key or remote with them, says the National Insurance Crime Bureau. They should park in well-lit areas or a garage. If they must park outdoors, owners should consider installing motion sensor lights.

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