Aziza Frank left for class last month only to find her 2011 black Hyundai Elantra was not where she parked it.
The 25-year-old University of Maryland, Baltimore student thought maybe her car had been towed. But when she dialed 911, Baltimore Police told her it had been stolen. And the theft is likely part of a national trend, fueled by a TikTok challenge, targeting certain models of Kia and Hyundai cars.
“Where I parked, there’s a lot of Ring cameras on a lot of the houses. So whoever is taking them, they obviously don’t really care,” Frank said. “I ended up talking to a neighbor to look at their Ring camera. And they told me that they saw two men get in my car with a mask on and driving off within 30 seconds.”
On TikTok, videos with the tag “Kia Boys,” as the thieves are known, have 42.3 million views. Some show individuals how to steal certain Kia or Hyundai models using a screwdriver and a USB charging cord. In Maryland, thefts of Kias and Hyundais have increased nearly 50% over the past year, according to Maryland State Police. Even dealerships, like the Koons Kia in Owings Mills, where 19 vehicles were recently stolen, are getting hit.
Christopher McDonold, executive director of the Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council, said some models made between 2010 and 2021 have a push-to-start system but do not have an anti-theft “immobilizer” to prevent a car from being started without the correct key.
“And they’ve figured out how to steal the vehicles by getting into the ignition and starting the cars using USB cables — like the ones you use to charge your phone — that’s left in the car,” McDonold said.
So far in 2023, 508 Hyundais and Kias have been stolen in Baltimore, according to police, representing nearly half the auto thefts citywide. In Baltimore County, 193 Kias or Hyundais were stolen in 2022. During the first three months of 2023, there have been 188 such incidents, according to police data.
Howard County Police have reported 43 Kia and Hyundai thefts this year, while Anne Arundel County Police have reported 69 in January and February.
Frank’s vehicle was recovered last Wednesday, and now she has to get her entire entire car repainted, all her rims replaced, and a brand new tire. The thieves even took her spare tire and car jack, she said.
“Beyond that, they completely trashed the inside,” Frank said.
It could take months for the parts to come in due to shortages.
“I really do need a car because I’m not from here,” said Frank, a native of Buffalo, New York, “but if I do get it back and park on the street, it could just get stolen again.”
The Hyundai Motor Group acquired Kia in 1998, a year after the latter company filed for bankruptcy, but the two automakers operate independently.
In a statement to The Baltimore Banner, Hyundai said it has launched a free software upgrade to prevent the theft mode popularized on social media.
“To date, Hyundai has contacted more than a million owners and leases of Hyundai vehicles with information on the software update. We have also initiated a program to begin reimbursement to eligible customers for their purchase of steering wheel locks. Hyundai has shipped more than 40,000 steering wheel locks to more than 370 law enforcement agencies and will continue to provide free steering wheel locks to them for distribution to residents who own or lease affected models,” the company said.
Kia also began to roll out a software update for some of its vehicles, but there is a compatibility issue with the new software update in certain cars, CBS Chicago recently reported.
In the past several weeks, police departments in Baltimore and Howard counties have held free steering wheel lock giveaways in an effort to stem these thefts. Baltimore City hosted one last Friday in West Baltimore.
The Baltimore Police Department also recommended that owners install an alarm, vehicle immobilizer or tracking system, close their window, park in well-lit areas, and take spare keys out of their vehicle.
Columbia resident Lauren Vint said it felt like “Christmas” as she received a steering wheel lock for her red 2016 Hyundai Elantra at the Northern District police station in Howard County.
Vint thinks her car won’t be targeted because it’s a stick shift, but the recent rash of break-ins and a bulletin board at the local library noting the popularity of Elantras among thieves got her attention.
“And I don’t want my car stolen at the end of the day, though I don’t think it is a great car to steal,” she said. “But I just don’t want to deal with the hassle, so hopefully this is enough to to deter someone from trying.”
Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown is one of two dozen attorneys general who signed a letter to the car manufacturers calling on them to accelerate the implementation of the software upgrade for most of the affected models before June.
In the letter, prosecutors acknowledge that both companies have “reported to have taken some steps to address this crisis,” but “it hasn’t been enough, and it hasn’t been done fast enough,” they wrote.
“Your companies’ decisions not to install anti-theft immobilizers as standard equipment on certain vehicles sold in the United States has caused ongoing consumer harm and undermined public safety in communities across the country. It is well past time that you acknowledge your companies’ role and take swift and comprehensive action to remedy it,” the letter said.
As for Frank, she is not sure how she will find the money to get a new vehicle if her insurance does not cover the damage.
“Hopefully, it can be saved. The insurance will pick the cheapest option whether it’s totaling the car paying for the damages,” she said. “And the auto shop said that if the insurance decides not to pay for the damages because of the cost, I’ll have to pick and choose what I want fixed to see if they’ll save the car.”