NYPD Warns Owners to Fix Their Cars as Hyundai, Kia Thefts Tied to TikTok Challenge Soar

Millions of Hyundais and Kias were missing a key anti-theft device -- a flaw known to automakers, who developed software upgrades to fix it, and also known to kids looking for a thrilling joyride

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New York City has a message for anyone emboldened by a viral TikTok challenge thought to be behind spiking car thefts in the five boroughs and across the country: We're coming for you.

It also has a warning for Kia and Hyundai owners with the affected models: Get a software upgrade. It's free.

Thursday's joint announcement from Mayor Eric Adams and NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell seeks to renew vehicle owners' awareness around the so-called Challenge. The challenge, which is believed to have been started in the Midwest, shows how easy it is to steal certain models from certain automakers because of a security flaw.

Millions of vehicles -- 3.8 million Hyundais and 4.5 million Kias -- as of the last federal update, were missing a key anti-theft device, spurring a rash in auto thefts. It's a known flaw, which is why the two manufacturers rolled out free security upgrades -- but it's also known to ... everyone else. People exploited the issue and publicized it on social media, leading to a TikTok challenge that emerged in mid-2022 and, by this past Valentine's Day, had been blamed for at least 14 crashes and eight deaths linked to the thefts, according to the National Highway Safety Administration.

The same challenge was eyed in an October car crash in New York that left four teenagers dead.

The NYPD has said thefts of Kias and Hyundais shot up 50% since the trend emerged. On Thursday, Sewell said the NYPD first caught on to the alarming spike in New York City thefts in September. Prior to that, she says the city was seeing about 10 to 12 of those cars stolen a month. She says that the average rose to about 100 in December.

Most of the thefts have occurred in the Bronx, but northern Manhattan is seeing an increase as well, Sewell added. It's not clear how many impacted vehicles are registered in New York, but the police commissioner said that number itself doesn't really matter: She's concerned about any and all of them that are in New York City.

"We believe teenagers are stealing them based on the video for joyriding, but we cannot ignore the fact there's a possibility they are being used in the commission of a crime," Sewell said, noting that most of the cars believed stolen in connection with the trend were found abandoned. "Obviously, the stealing of them themselves is the crime, but there's a more dangerous crime that can happen down the road that we want to prevent."

All it takes, as News 4 has reported previously, is a USB cord.

Car owners are worried as a TikTok challenge, dubbed the Kia Challenge, highlights how to steal specific cars with a USB. Marc Santia reports.

"When you look at that simple charging cable that we use to charge our phone devices now could be used to start a vehicle, to start a car ... so this technology is moving extremely in a rapid pace and the police agencies across the country are making a valid attempt to keep up with it," Adams said. "But what's advertised today on social media can get 2 million views and it can crisscross the country at such a rapid pace. And we've never witnessed this historically."

"It impacts our young people, and now we're seeing a crime like this. These vehicles can be used in vehicle crashes where people are injured. It could be used in robberies, it can be used in other larcenies," the Democrat added. "And that's why we're really zeroed in on this."

According to Thomas Kelly, a detective with the NYPD's auto crime unit, the department has notched about 109 arrests for stolen Kias and Hyundais through March 26 -- and that's only since the start of this year, he said.

The vehicles being targeted are very specific: Kias or Hyundais built over the last decade with traditional ignitions. A USB cable is the key to swiping the vehicle, though it has little to do with the technology. It's just the right size to activate the ignition, Kelly has said.

Police say all Kias and Hyundais made after 2021 come standard with anti-theft immobilizers, which lack the flaw.

Here's what the NYPD suggests you do if you have one of the earlier models, apart from getting the upgrade:

  • Use a steering wheel locking device
  • Always turn off the ignition and remove the keys when leaving your vehicle
  • Lock all windows and doors
  • Activate your vehicle's alarm system
  • Park in high-traffic, well-lit areas whenever possible

Asked what he thought of the ongoing push by some in Congress to ban TikTok over such security breaches, Adams said lawmakers really need to come up with a better way to monitor all social media platforms, that one included.

"This is not the first challenge that we've witnessed that we saw crossover," the mayor said. "My feeling about those types of drill music that promoted violence, social media has altered the impact on the lives of our children." 

For its part, TikTok has said it "does not condone this behavior, which violates our policies and will be removed if found on our platform."

Hyundai and Kia issued a recall for more than 485,000 cars, telling owners to park outside as they can catch on fire even while the engine is off.
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