SAINT PAUL, Minn. (CN) — Kia and Hyundai vehicle owners in the Midwest have seen their cars stolen at alarming rates this summer, and have now taken the manufacturers to court.
In a proposed class-action lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court in Minnesota, onetime 2020 Kia Sportage owner Steve Zanmiller alleged that Kia and Hyundai had sold cars without telling consumers that the vehicles didn’t have engine immobilizers, electronic devices meant to prevent theft by hot-wiring. This allows would-be thieves to start the car by stripping the ignition column and inserting a USB drive, knife or other small tool.
“Considering how many people charge their cell phones in their cars, the necessary instrument needed to steal a Defective Vehicle is usually readily available to any thief,” Zanmiller’s attorney George “Jed” Chronic of the Mankato, Minnesota firm Maschka, Riedy Ries & Frentz wrote in Zanmiller’s complaint.
The problem is compounded, Chronic wrote, by the fact that some of the vehicles’ windows are not properly connected to the cars’ security systems, allowing them to be broken without triggering alarms.
It’s unclear how long Kia and Hyundai have made vehicles without immobilizers, but Zanmiller’s proposed class includes owners of vehicles dating as far back as 2011. The missing security equipment has seen increased scrutiny this summer following the growth of the “Kia Boys” trend on social media. Car and Driver magazine traces the trend to Milwaukee, where Kias and Hyundais represented over two-thirds of stolen cars in 2021.
The degree to which social media fame is driving car thefts is unclear, but the narrative of viral joy rides has caught on, with onlookers and drivers alike posting videos purporting to show the “Kia Boys” at work. An amateur documentarian in Milwaukee going by the name Tommy G reached his own viral fame in May after posting a YouTube video featuring interviews with self-proclaimed Kia Boys and their victims.
Facing rumblings of legal threats from the city, the automakers have even offered free steering wheel locks to their customers, according to Wisconsin ABC affiliate WISN. WISN also reports that the city is on track to reach 10,000 car thefts by the end of the year — over double 2021’s total and triple that of 2019.
Thefts in the Twin Cities have not been as pervasive as in Milwaukee, according to local law enforcement, but Kia thefts in St. Paul have risen from just 18 in 2021 to 256 by mid-July. The driver of a Sportage stolen in July also killed a 70-year-old man after striking his truck.
Hyundai thefts have also spiked in St. Paul, rising from 31 in 2021 to 212 by July of 2022. The trend isn’t limited to the Midwest either; the Los Angeles Times reports that Kia and Hyundai vehicles rose from making up about 13% of thefts in 2021 to 20% in 2022, leading police to issue PSAs on how to prevent the thefts.
Zanmiller’s complaint doesn’t pay reference to social media, instead focusing on the carmakers’ role in the thefts.
“Defendants had the capability and means to add an engine immobilizer or similar device, yet they failed to do so,” Chronic wrote.
Engine immobilizers became industry standard in 2011, according to Kenneth McClain of the Independence, Missouri, firm Humphrey Farrington McClain. McClain’s firm is working on suits in 15 states related to the thefts, including Zanmiller’s. Kia and Hyundai, he said, were among the few automakers to make them optional features.
“It’s the equivalent of having optional seatbelts,” he quipped. More suits, he said, are planned.
Chronic wrote that Kia knew the impact immobilizers had on theft, having argued to the federal government in 2010 that a proposed immobilizer on its Amanti line of vehicles was similar to existing devices “which reduce theft by 58 to 80%.”
Representatives from Kia did not respond to a request for comment Thursday evening.
A Hyundai representative said that the company does not comment on pending litigation. In a statement, the company said it was “concerned” about the rise in thefts, and that it began including immobilizers in all its vehicles in November.
The statement went on to add that Hyundai “has been working with and will continue to support local police departments to make steering wheel locks available for affected Hyundai owners,” and that consumers will be able to buy a security kit “that targets the method of entry thieves are using” at dealerships starting in October.
McClain said that was too little, too late.
“They’re offering to put immobilizers on the cars for $200, so they want you to pay for what they should have installed initially,” he said.
“These people are still going to be facing the problems of a diminished market for their cars, as well as potential problems with insurance,” McClain added. “And I’m afraid they’re going to be broken into whether they’ve got the immobilizers or not.” Kia and Hyundai, he said, “seem to want to fight about it rather than fix it.”
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