Car thefts have surged in Baltimore this year with more than 1,000 cars stolen in the city every month since June. And people whose cars are stolen aren’t the only ones affected by this spike in auto thefts. The industries that tow, repair and sell cars have had to handle the surges, too.
Auto body shops have seen repair times stretch into the weeks and months as they struggle to deal with an influx of Kias and Hyundais — vehicles that are being targeted after a vulnerability in certain models was discovered and spread on social media in 2022. People also continue to try to steal the cars from these shops while they wait for repairs, even if the cars don’t run.
Below are four stories, collected by reporters for The Baltimore Banner, that each offer a snapshot of how auto thefts affect people and businesses around Baltimore.
Your bad luck is this tow truck driver’s good fortune
For almost 10 years, Salifou Savadogo has operated a towing service and auto repair shop called Good Luck Towing on East Fayette Street in East Baltimore. Good Luck gets a call when bad luck strikes: dead batteries, empty gas tanks, accidental lockouts, flat tires, car crashes, and lately, stolen cars. A lot of stolen cars.
In July and August he would get calls for 12 to 14 stolen cars a week.
“It went so high, at one point in time I didn’t have space here for all of them,” said Savadogo, whose lot can store about 150 cars. “We had so many I couldn’t even count.”
The stolen cars he was called to recover were variously damaged, with missing ignitions or busted windows. Replacement parts and glass were hard to come by, so car owners often waited weeks or months to get their cars fixed. Some of the stolen cars had been crashed. Some had been abandoned. All of them, he said, were Kias or Hyundais. As summer ended, so did the calls to pick up stolen cars.
“Teenagers went back to school,” he surmised.
One week in late October, his lot contained just one stolen car, an older Hyundai Sonata sedan. A thief had broken and removed its ignition system, tried to drive off, and crashed.
Savadogo, 46, is from Burkina Faso. He has five children and lives with his family in Perry Hall. He moved to New York City in 1999 and drove a cab, moving to Baltimore in 2008 to do the same. In 2014, with the rise of Uber and Lyft, he shifted and got into the towing business. He now has seven employees who are mechanics and drivers. Good Luck is not among the operators contracted by Baltimore City to tow vehicles, so he found his own niche — insurance companies.
Most of the cars that end up in his lot are deemed total losses by insurance adjusters, which means he will ultimately tow them to South Baltimore to be auctioned. A few of the cars might see life on the road again; most will be salvaged for parts. In the meantime, he’ll make a modest amount just for storing the vehicles in his lot, between $25 and $45 a day. He also makes some money loading cars into shipping containers.
Savadogo looks at his business as a public service. Stranded drivers need rescue. Disabled cars need to be cleared off roads. The spike in auto theft in Baltimore gave his business a boost.
“Yeah, it’s good for business,” he said. “I can’t say it’s bad. The car owners, they’re not happy. But that’s the job.”
— Reported by Hugo Kugiya
For repair shop owner, auto thefts reach point of no return for fixes
The car can be gone in as little as 30 seconds. The joyride can span hours. And once the damage is done, authorities typically locate the vehicles days later.
It’s the start of what has become a months-long process for mechanics like Tino Bertin, who say repair work is reaching a point of no return due to stolen Kia and Hyundai cars.
On average, one or two stolen Kia or Hyundai vehicles — now recovered by their owners — have gotten delivered to Bertin’s repair shop in Northeast Baltimore every week since April, he said. His repair times have slowed due to the influx, he said, taking time away to work on other cars.
“Yeah, because I have to figure out how bad it is and then wait on the parts, and they’re [parts manufacturers] so backed up,” Bertin said.
Even Kia or Hyundai models that end up on his lot are being targeted and totaled, he said.
In early October, a customer dropped off a dark-purple 2012 Hyundai Sonata for a new engine. A week before the engine was expected to arrive, he got to work and found the backseat passenger window broken and the wires from the car’s ignition hanging out under the steering wheel.
“I left the car unlocked. I even wrote on the window ‘NEED BELT CAN’T START,’ and they still smashed the window and ripped out the ignition,” Bertin said.
It was not the first time someone has tried to steal a Hyundai or Kia off his lot. Bertin said that depending on how “hard” the ignition’s lock cylinders and missing interior plastics are ripped, it’ll cost at least $1,000 for him and his team to fix the vehicle. In some cases, like the Sonata, the steering wheel column can’t be replaced, making the car undrivable.
He has owned Tino Auto Service and Sales for nearly a decade, but said he’s never seen young people so emboldened to steal cars, despite his attempts to deter them. “The kids just don’t care,” he said.
Of the 600 stolen-auto arrests in Baltimore this year, over 200 were juveniles, with 77 of them in robbery and carjacking arrests, city data shows.
“We have motion-sensing cameras. The police are doing nothing. I don’t know why they keep trying. … They can’t go anywhere,” Bertin said.
— Reported by Penelope Blackwell
Body shop owner sees work on stolen cars as ‘not the business we want’
Each time a recovered stolen Kia or Hyundai arrives at Rosedale Auto Services for repairs, shop owner Greg Ey tapes a plastic sheet over the shattered window and disables the vehicle so it can’t be pilfered from his lot.
The disabling step is crucial because Ey knows even damaged cars bearing the Korean makers’ logos are prone to go missing. Twice now, a Kia or Hyundai owner has contacted Ey for repairs after someone busted through their window. When the tow trucks arrived to cart the vehicles to Rosedale, they discovered that the car had vanished entirely.
These days, Ey’s body shop is repairing 15 to 20 Kias and Hyundais a month — an “insane” amount, he said.
“Is it business for us? Yes. But it’s not the business we want,” Ey said.
Insurance adjusters and Baltimore City residents started sending the vehicles to Rosedale, located along a stretch of Belair Road populated with auto body repair shops, in late 2021 and early 2022. Most were requesting repairs after someone broke into the cars and hacked into the steering column to easily start the engine.
The trickle of repairs soon became a steady rush, which Ey said led to a supply shortage of glass panes for back rear windows. Sometimes the disabled vehicles sat on his lot for six to eight weeks before he had the proper body parts to restore them.
Once the Kias and Hyundais were fixed, he moved them inside a chain-link fence wreathed with barbed wire and monitored by surveillance cameras until the owners could retrieve them.
Some of his clients have seen their Kias or Hyundais stolen more than once, he said. One man ignored Ey’s advice to invest in a brightly colored steering wheel club lock — the best way to discourage a would-be thief before they smash through the window. His car was stolen again, Ey said.
The Kia and Hyundai owners are discouraged, he said. After they’ve reached their insurance deductible, they’re still left with the headache of dealing with repairs.
“We don’t want to do this forever,” Ey said. “There’s plenty to do without stolen cars.”
— Reported by Lillian Reed
Kias and Hyundais are ‘on the move’ at North Baltimore dealership
Business has been good for used-car salesman Carl Moore, thanks, in part, to record-high auto theft in Baltimore.
The rash of crime is not only leading more customers to Moore, but it’s also bringing former customers back much sooner than expected.
Moore, 71, recently had a repeat customer after thieves stole her used Hyundai just weeks after she bought it from him at Dynamic Cars on Howard Street. He said this customer, like many others in recent months, is frustrated and confused.
“They can’t get their heads wrapped around it either — what’s going on,” Moore said of his customers.
And Moore can’t quite make sense of it himself. Sure, in his 30 years as a car salesman, he’s used to thieves swiping cars that have strong resale value or are carelessly locked.
But that’s nothing compared to what he’s been seeing now with Kias and Hyundais.
While his dealership hasn’t had any thefts, he encounters the residual effects all the time: Hyundais and Kias up for auction, ignitions visibly ripped out. New buyers frequenting the lot looking for inexpensive used cars after theirs have been stolen.
Surprisingly, customers still want to buy Kias and Hyundais.
It’s simple, Moore says. They’re “nice-looking” affordable cars with decent warranties.
Maybe they lack engine immobilizers, but, to Moore, there are so many other things those models have to offer.
“They’re on the move,” Moore said of Kias and Hyundais.
Off the lot — and from where you left them.
— Reported by Brenna Smith