Why some Hyundai and Kia cars are easy prey for car thieves

Some Hyundai and Kia cars and SUVs lack a “key” anti-theft device, making them an easy target for car thieves.

An insurance industry group says these cars are stolen at nearly twice the rate of the rest of the auto industry because their engines don’t have “immobilizer” systems, which is an electronic safety device that prevents the car starts without the correct key.

The robberies apparently began in the Milwaukee area two years ago and spread to several Midwestern cities and as far away as Colorado and New Mexico after how-to videos surfaced on social media.

The Highway Loss 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 had a rate of 1.21. One year of insured vehicle equals one year of insured vehicle.

The institute, which released its findings Thursday, compared vehicles from model years 2015 to 2019. It looked at vehicle theft claims from 2021.

Chip keys, or transponders, which began appearing in the mid-1980s, communicate with a sensor in the vehicle’s ignition switch. If the chip’s registration code matches the identification code stored in the car’s computer system, the engine will start. If the codes don’t match, the engine won’t start, adding an important layer of protection against car thieves.

Immobilizers not included on cheaper models

Transponder-based immobilizer systems are not present in several versions of lower-priced vehicles from the two South Korean automakers, including the Kia Rio and Sportage and Hyundai Accent, the institute said.

“Our previous studies show that vehicle theft losses dropped after immobilizers were introduced,” said Matt Moore, the institute’s senior vice president. “Unfortunately, Hyundai and Kia have lagged behind other automakers in making them standard equipment.”

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

Car theft hacks go viral

The videos show thieves prying off the ignition cover of Hyundai and Kia vehicles, then using a screwdriver or USB cable to start them and drive off.

Last year in Milwaukee, 66 percent of the 10,476 stolen vehicles were Hyundais or Kias, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The number of robberies has slowed in the city so far this year. Through Sept. 12, 6,048 vehicles were taken, 58 percent of which were Hyundais or Kias, Milwaukee police said Thursday.

A 17-year-old burglary suspect in a viral Kia break-in video was arrested after police used the video and an anonymous tip to track him down, the Journal Sentinel reported. He could face up to 22 years in prison.

Hyundai and Kia acknowledged in statements that thieves are stealing some of their vehicles and said they comply with federal safety standards. “It is unfortunate that criminals are using social media to target vehicles without engine immobilizers in a coordinated effort,” Kia said.

All 2022 Kias had immobilizers either at launch or during the model year. Hyundai said all models produced after November 1, 2021 have immobilizers as standard equipment.

Kia says it is working to provide steering wheel locks at no cost to owners in the affected areas to deter theft. Hyundai said it also provides the locks to local police to distribute to Hyundai owners, and in October will begin selling a security kit that targets the thieves’ methods.

The institute’s Moore said vulnerable Hyundais and Kias are among the top 20 vehicles most popular with thieves, a distinction typically reserved for high-powered or expensive vehicles, or pickup trucks. The Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat had the highest rate of theft claims.

Many of the vulnerable Hyundais and Kias tend to be bought by people with lower incomes. “They are relatively inexpensive vehicles when bought new,” Moore said. Owners of some of the models may have dropped comprehensive insurance to save money and may have had to replace the cars themselves, he said.

To help prevent theft, homeowners should roll up the windows, lock the doors and take the key or fob with them, says the National Insurance Crime Bureau. They must park in well-lit areas or in a garage. If they must park outdoors, homeowners should consider installing motion-sensing lights.

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