Thieves' key at hack that leaves Hyundai, Kia cars at risk

Thieves’ key at hack that leaves Hyundai, Kia cars at risk

Some Hyundais, Kias, and SUVs are missing an anti-theft “key,” and thieves know it.

The insurance industry group says these cars are stolen at nearly twice the rate of other automakers because their keys lack the computer chips for theft “immobilizer” systems.

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

The Loss of Way 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 averaged 1.21. The year of the insured vehicle is equal to one year of the insured.

The institute, which released its findings on Thursday, compared cars from the 2015 model year to 2019. It studied vehicle theft claims from 2021.

Chip switches, which began to appear in the 1990s, connect to another chip in the ignition switch. If they match, the motors will start. If they do not match, the thief will not be able to start the engine.

The institute said the switches do not have an immobilizer on many lower-priced versions of cars from South Korean automakers such as Kia Rio, Sportage and Hyundai Accent.

“Our previous studies show that vehicle theft losses decreased after the introduction of immobilizers,” said Matt Moore, vice president of the institute. “Unfortunately, Hyundai and Kia have fallen behind other automakers in making it standard equipment.”

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

The videos show thieves peeping over the ignition caps of Hyundai and Kia cars, then using a screwdriver or USB cable to start them and drive away.

Last year in Milwaukee, 66 percent of 10,476 cars stolen were Hyundais or Kias, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The number of robberies in the city has slowed so far this year. As of Sept. 12, 6,048 vehicles have been seized, Milwaukee Police said Thursday, but 58% of them were Hyundais or Kias.

The Journal Sentinel reports that a 17-year-old suspect has been arrested in a viral video of Kia thefts after police used the video and an anonymous tip to track him down. He could face up to 22 years in prison.

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

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

Kia says it is making steering wheel locks available at no cost to authorities in affected areas to deter thefts. Hyundai said it is also providing locks to police, and that in October, it will begin selling a security toolkit that targets thieves’ tactics.

Poor Hyundais and Kias cars are among the 20 most popular vehicles with thieves, Moore of the institute said, a distinction usually reserved for high-powered or expensive vehicles, or pickup trucks. The Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat has the highest rate of theft claims.

Many weak Hyundais and Kias are often bought by people with low incomes. “These are relatively inexpensive vehicles when buying new,” Moore said. He said that owners of some models may have foregoed universal insurance to save money, and may have had to replace the cars themselves.

To help prevent theft, owners should open windows, lock doors, and take the key or fob with them, says the National Insurance Crimes Office. They should park their cars in well-lit areas or a garage. If they have to park outdoors, owners should consider installing motion-sensitive lights.

Copyright 2022 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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