‘It needs to stop’: Dealership says viral car theft challenge targets vulnerable victims

Fixes are now rolling out in a phased approach.
An ignition switch is left exposed after thieves broke into a car in an act believed to be tied...
An ignition switch is left exposed after thieves broke into a car in an act believed to be tied to the "Kia Boyz" challenge.(WKYT)
Updated: Apr. 10, 2023 at 4:00 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - Yellow spray paint on the windows mark the cars that turned into targets - just too tempting, apparently, for some teens taking part in a TikTok trend.

Now, peering in through the plastic that hangs over the busted-out windows, one can still see the exposed ignition switches.

“I never thought in 100 years that somebody would say, ‘Well, we’ll just go steal them,’” said Mark Sawyer, fixed operations director for Don Franklin Automotive Group. “And for nothing. They really are just stealing them for fun.

“It needs to stop,” he said.

As the so-called “Kia Boyz” challenge continues to cause problems for certain Hyundai and Kia owners across the country, Sawyer says it is well past time for the trend to end - not only because a fix is now rolling out to those whose cars may be vulnerable, but also because he says he has seen repeatedly how the thefts create hardship for affected drivers.

Even at Don Franklin, a handful of cars sitting on their lots awaiting repairs were broken into in one day after, as Sawyer saw later on surveillance video, a couple of kids climbed their fence.

WKYT has reported on the social media trend for months.

Last year, a Lexington woman shared her story of having her Hyundai stolen in Louisville.

“It was definitely a freak out moment,” Hannah Reitz told WKYT’s Chad Hedrick. “A little bit of tears, a little bit of, ‘what do I do?’ Then from there just kind of calm down and call 911 and go through the steps of a stolen vehicle.”

That was in July.

What is troubling, officials said, is that it has continued to happen.

Last month, Lexington police said the TikTok trend was behind a spike in car thefts in February.

“About 25-30 vehicles had been stolen over the course of approximately two weeks,” Lt. John Bardin told WKYT’s Samantha Valentino.

Police said that one group was behind most of those, and, after police made several arrests, theft numbers have gone back down to more normal levels.

“Some of the individuals that were charged with these crimes, they were able to confirm that our observations were true. So, they were in fact part of the TikTok challenge,” Lt. Bardin said. “[They] indicated that this could be a challenge among themselves as well to see who could get the most cars.”

It is one of the more perplexing vehicle theft trends Sawyer says he has seen in his decades in the automotive industry.

Unlike the surge in stolen catalytic converters or the rather organized theft of expensive Hellcats, this is not about the money. Many of the stolen vehicles are found abandoned - or crashed.

“They really don’t want your car. It’s like walking into a store and stealing something you don’t really need,” he said. “In today’s world I guess if you walked out with a loaf of bread and your kids were hungry, I’d almost get it. But if you went to steal something that you really don’t want or need just to say you stole it, it’s just for the thrill.”

And many of the cars that have been targeted - especially the older ones - are base models that were designed to be affordable, Sawyer said. That also means that now it does not take much damage for them to be totaled.

From what Sawyer has seen from the damaged cars brought into their shop, many of the people the trend is hurting the most can least afford the consequences.

“When you get somebody towed in here, that’s their only mode of transportation. They’re driving - in a great scenario for them - maybe a $3,000 car. And it’s gone,” he said. “And then when the insurance company totals the car because of the damage to the steering column, then you’ve got nothing. And you’ve got no way to get to work. You’ve got no way to get to school. You’ve got no way to get the kids to school.”

Data shows it has been a common problem.

Theft claims were twice as common for Hyundai and Kia vehicles as a group as for all other manufacturers of 2015-2019 model-year vehicles, according to a Highway Loss Data Institute analysis of 2021 insurance claims.

The thieves - many seemingly inspired by a how-to video posted on social media - specifically target Hyundai and Kia models with a physical key slot. A wide range of model years (2011-2021 for Kia and 2015-2021 for Hyundai) are vulnerable because immobilizers were not standard on many of those vehicles.

Hyundai and Kia lagged behind other manufacturers in making immobilizers standard, the HLDI reports. In model year 2000, immobilizers were standard on 62% of models from other manufacturers. In model year 2015, when immobilizers were standard on 96% of models from other manufacturers, they were standard on just 26% of Hyundai and Kia models.

The automakers also face a class action lawsuit over whether their “failure to disclose their failure to include...immobilizer devices in certain vehicles is false and misleading in violation of state and federal laws.”

Hyundai and Kia have since launched a service campaign in response to the theft trend.

“The software updates the theft alarm software logic to extend the length of the alarm sound from 30 seconds to one minute and requires the key to be in the ignition switch to turn the vehicle on,” according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Hyundai is also providing customers with a window sticker “alerting would-be thieves that the vehicle is equipped with anti-theft protection.”

Hyundai and Kia are providing the updates in a phased approach. They have also been working with law enforcement across the country to provide more than 26,000 steering wheel locks since November, NHTSA said.

Sawyer is encouraging the affected drivers to make sure they take their cars in for the fix. It is free, and does not take long to provide the update. It may not always be enough to keep aspiring “Kia Boyz” from breaking in, but at least the car will not be able to be stolen in that way.

Affordable aftermarket systems are also available, Sawyer says, that can act as an immobilizer if your vehicle does not have one.