Mar 13, 2023

Police warn drivers of 'Kia Challenge' thefts

Auto theft is on the rise. Just over the span of the first four months of this year, the number of Hyundai Elantras, Hyundai Sonatas and Kia Optimas stolen has increased by 60-100 vehicles each month in Austin, Texas.

Now, the Austin Police Department is warning about the "Kia Challenge" trend that is sweeping across social media platforms, specifically TikTok.

Austin police are currently on the search for two suspects who broke into a Kia Soul early Saturday morning on March 18, and drove away. Officers responding to a single-vehicle crash the next day located a white Kia Soul that crashed into a home. The two suspects were seen on security camera running away from the car after it crashed. The footage then shows two other vehicles, which the detectives believe were a Kia Soul and Hyundai Elantra, leave the area at high speed. They believe the two vehicles were both stolen.

Anyone with information is encouraged to contact the APD Auto Theft unit at [email protected]. You can also submit your tip anonymously through the Capital Area Crime Stoppers Program by calling 512-472-8477. A reward of up to $1,000 may be available for any information that leads to an arrest.

This incident is not novel by any means. Thousands of Hyundais and Kias have been stolen or damaged in the past two years across the entire nation.

The sharp uptick has been linked to viral videos, posted to TikTok and other social media platforms, teaching people how to start the cars with USB cables and exploit a security vulnerability in some models sold in the U.S. without engine immobilizers, a standard feature on most cars since the 1990s preventing the engine from starting unless the key is present.

But unlike some social media-driven trends that seemingly disappear just as police get a handle on them, the car thefts have continued. Hyundai has tried to work with TikTok and other platforms to remove the videos, but as new ones surface fresh waves of thefts occur, illustrating the lingering effects of dangerous content that gains traction with teens looking for ways to go viral.

Attorneys general from 17 states have called on federal regulators to issue a mandatory recall, arguing the voluntary software fixes issued by the companies aren't enough. Multiple cities including Baltimore, Milwaukee and New York have filed or announced plans to join legal action against the automakers, which also are facing class-action and civil lawsuits from consumers like Neal. One such lawsuit was settled for roughly $200 million last week.

The National Highway and Safety Administration blames the trend for at least 14 crashes and eight fatalities, but lawyers suing the carmakers say the number is likely much higher.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.