Thieves discover hack that leaves Hyundai and Kia cars vulnerable

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Some Hyundai and Kia cars and SUVs are missing a “key” anti-theft device, and thieves know it.

An insurance industry group says these cars are stolen at almost twice the rate of the rest of the auto industry because their keys lack computer chips for theft “immobilizer” systems.

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 instructional 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 vehicles per year. The rest of the industry combined had a rate of 1.21. One year of insured vehicle is equal to one insured vehicle for one year.

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

Chip keys, which began appearing in the 1990s, communicate with another chip in the ignition switch. If they match, the engines will start. If they don’t match, a thief can’t start the engine.

The keys do not have an immobilizer system in various versions of lower-priced vehicles from the two South Korean automakers, such as Kia Rio and Sportage and Hyundai Accent, the institute said.

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

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

Videos show thieves removing the ignition cover on Hyundai and Kia vehicles, then using a screwdriver or USB cable to turn them on and drive away.

Last year in Milwaukee, 66% 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. As of September 12, 6,048 vehicles were seized, but 58% of them were Hyundais or Kias, Milwaukee police said Thursday.

A 17-year-old robbery suspect in a viral video about the Kia burglaries has been 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 admitted in statements that thieves are stealing some of their vehicles and said they meet federal security 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 have immobilizers either at the start or during the model year. Hyundai said that 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 authorities in the affected areas to deter theft. Hyundai said it is also providing the locks to police and will start selling a security kit in October that targets thieves’ methods.

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

Many of the vulnerable Hyundais and Kias are often purchased by low-income individuals. “These are relatively inexpensive vehicles when you buy 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, she said.

To help prevent break-ins, homeowners should roll up their windows, lock their doors, and take the key or keychain with them, says the National Insurance Crime Bureau. They must park in well-lit areas or in a garage. If they have to park outside, homeowners should consider installing motion sensor lights.

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