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Chicago Sues Car Manufacturers Over Skyrocketing Auto Theft

Kia and Hyundai auto thefts “exploded” last summer when social media users began posting how-to videos aimed at exploiting the security defect in the vehicles, according to the lawsuit.

The city of Chicago is suing Hyundai and Kia, alleging the South Korean automakers failed to include “industry-standard” engine immobilizers in many models between 2011 and 2022, fueling a surge in vehicle thefts and related crimes.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Cook County Circuit Court, cites a “car theft crisis” driven in large part by Kia and Hyundai’s “unlawful and reckless actions” in lagging other automakers that have installed the technology, which prevents hot-wiring by requiring a chip-enabled smart key to start the vehicle.

“Unlike the movies, hot-wiring vehicles is far harder than it appears — unless that vehicle was manufactured by Hyundai or Kia,” the lawsuit states.

Like many cities, Chicago has seen car thefts skyrocket as it emerges from the pandemic. Chicago had 21,516 reported auto thefts in 2022, up from 13,856 the previous year, a 55% increase, according to data from the National Crime Information Center. Nationwide, thefts were up 7%, surpassing 1 million stolen vehicles for the first time since 2008.

More than 8,800 Kia and Hyundai vehicles were stolen in Chicago last year, representing 41% of the city’s reported thefts, according to the lawsuit.

“The surge in thefts has hit Chicago especially hard — placing pedestrians, drivers and bystanders in harm’s way,” the lawsuit states. “This crime wave has also further stressed Chicago’s law enforcement and emergency services.”

Kia and Hyundai thefts “exploded” last summer when social media users began posting how-to videos aimed at exploiting the security defect in the vehicles, according to the lawsuit. The trend, which likely started with a group of Milwaukee teenagers dubbed the “Kia Boyz,” went viral, showing how easy it was to steal the vehicles by removing a plastic cover on the steering column and using a USB cable to start the engine, the lawsuit states.

In Chicago, the wave of Kia and Hyundai thefts disproportionately affects low-income residents, the lawsuit alleges.

“The impact of car theft on Chicago residents can be deeply destabilizing, particularly for low- to middle-income workers who have fewer options for getting to work and taking care of their families,” Mayor Brandon Johnson said in a news release. “The failure of Kia and Hyundai to install basic auto-theft prevention technology in these models is sheer negligence, and as a result, a citywide and nationwide crime spree around automobile theft has been unfolding right before our eyes.”

Chicago is just the latest city to take legal action against the automakers.

In June, New York filed suit against Kia and Hyundai, alleging they were negligent in failing to install the anti-theft immobilizers, following Milwaukee, Seattle, St. Louis, Baltimore, Cleveland, San Diego and other major cities.

“Lawsuits filed by municipalities against Kia are without merit,” James Bell, a Kia spokesperson, said in an email Thursday. “The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has determined that this issue does not constitute a safety defect or noncompliance with applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, including ... theft protection measures.”

Engine immobilizers are now standard on all Hyundai and Kia vehicles produced as of November 2021, the automakers said. But with so many theft-vulnerable vehicles still on the road, the problem may not go away anytime soon.

In May, Kia and Hyundai agreed to pay about $200 million to settle a class-action lawsuit on behalf of about 9 million owners alleging the failure to install immobilizers led to widespread thefts, higher insurance costs and other related losses.

Both Kia and Hyundai are offering free “fixes” to make the older vehicles safer, including software updates and steering wheel locks.

“Hyundai is committed to the comprehensive actions we are undertaking to assist customers and communities affected by the persistent theft of certain vehicles not equipped with push-button ignitions and engine immobilizers,” Hyundai spokesperson Ira Gabriel said in an email. “Our dealers across the country are maximizing the number of anti-theft software installations that can be performed on a daily basis, contributing to steadily increasing completion rates.”

Kia has distributed more than 190,000 steering wheel locks and performed nearly 650,000 software upgrades nationwide, which are designed to “restrict the operation of the vehicle’s ignition system should a potential criminal attempt to steal a locked vehicle without the key,” Bell said.

In its lawsuit, Chicago said the software fix has proved ineffective, with Kia and Hyundai owners reporting their vehicles stolen even after the upgrade. One owner had his 2020 Kia Optima stolen 15 hours after leaving the dealership with the upgrade, according to the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, the city alleges Kia and Hyundai have failed to follow through on promises to provide steering wheel locks to Chicago, with Hyundai delivering fewer than 20 locks by the end of 2022, according to the lawsuit.

“These Band-Aid solutions are too little, too late,” the lawsuit states.

While all new models are produced with engine immobilizers, thefts of older Hyundai and Kia vehicles continue to accelerate in Chicago, with 9,316 stolen through July, according to Stephen Kane, an attorney with the city of Chicago.

Fixing the existing problem, and compensating both the city and car owners, is at the center of the lawsuit, Kane said.

“There are all these cars out there that need to be recalled or need to have some sort of safety mechanism installed, because otherwise these cars continue to be a very increased risk of theft,” Kane told the Tribune.

The lawsuit alleges Kia and Hyundai engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices, negligence and created a public nuisance that has proved costly to the city and car owners, who often are charged a higher premium for insurance coverage and may have to pay out-of-pocket for alternate transportation while the vehicles are repaired or replaced.

The stolen cars have also been used to commit other criminal acts, from armed robberies to murder, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit is seeking an injunction requiring Kia and Hyundai to fix the vehicles, award restitution to affected customers, pay fines of $10,000 for each violation of the city’s deceptive trade practices ordinance and award the city “all other damages permitted by law,” among other requests for relief.

©2023 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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