Thieves key is a hack that makes Hyundai, Kia cars vulnerable

DETROIT (AP) — Some Hyundai and Kia cars and SUVs are missing a “keyed” anti-theft device, and thieves know it.

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

The thefts apparently began in the Milwaukee area two years ago and have spread to multiple 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 vehicle year insured equals one vehicle insured for one year.

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

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

The keys lack an immobilizer system in several cheaper versions of cars from the two South Korean automakers such as the Kia Rio and Sportage and the Hyundai Accent, the institute said.

“Our earlier studies show that vehicle theft losses have decreased since immobilizers were introduced,” said Matt Moore, senior vice president of the institute. “Unfortunately, Hyundai and Kia have lagged behind other automakers in creating 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 percent of Hyundai and Kia models. Car manufacturers have not explained their decision not to include immobilizers in some models.

Videos show thieves ripping off the ignition covers of Hyundai and Kia cars, then using a screwdriver or USB cable to ignite them and flee.

Last year in Milwaukee, 66 percent of the 10,476 vehicles stolen were Hyundais or Kias, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. For this year, the number of thefts in the city is decreasing. Through Sept. 12, 6,048 vehicles had been taken, but 58 percent of them were Hyundais or Kias, Milwaukee police said Thursday.

A 17-year-old theft suspect in a viral Kia burglary video 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 acknowledged in statements that thieves were stealing some of their vehicles and said they met federal safety standards. “It is unfortunate that criminals are using social media to attack vehicles without engine immobilizers in a coordinated effort,” Kia said.

All 2022 Kias received immobilizers either at the start of or during the model year. Hyundai said all models built after November 1, 2021 have immobilizers as standard equipment.

Kia says it is working to provide steering wheel locks free of charge to authorities in affected areas to deter theft. Hyundai said it also provides the locks to police and that in October it will start selling a security kit that targets thieves’ methods.

The institute’s Moore said vulnerable Hyundais and Kias rank among the 20 most popular vehicles among thieves, a distinction usually reserved for powerful 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 are often bought by people with lower incomes. “These are relatively inexpensive vehicles when purchased new,” Moore said. Owners of some of the models may have foregone comprehensive insurance to save money and may have had to replace the cars themselves, he said.

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

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