DETROIT — Some Hyundai and Kia cars and SUVs lack a “key” anti-theft device, and thieves know it.
An insurance industry group says these cars are being stolen at nearly twice the rate of the rest of the auto industry because their keys lack computer chips for anti-theft systems.
The robberies apparently began in the Milwaukee area two years ago and have spread to several cities in the Midwest and as far away as Colorado and New Mexico after instructional videos appeared 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 loss rate of 2.18 per 1,000 insured vehicle-years. . The rest of the industry combined had a rate of 1.21. One insured vehicle year is equivalent to one insured vehicle for one year.
The institute, which released its findings on Thursday, compared vehicles from model years 2015 to 2019. It studied vehicle theft claims from 2021.
Chip keys, which began to appear in the 1990s, communicate with another chip in the ignition switch. If they match, the motors will start. If they don’t match, a thief can’t start the engine.
The keys do not have an immobilizer system in several cheaper versions of vehicles from the two South Korean automakers such as the Kia Rio and Sportage and the Hyundai Accent, the institute said.
“Our previous studies show that vehicle theft losses dropped after the introduction of immobilizers,” said Matt Moore, senior vice president of the institute. “Unfortunately, Hyundai and Kia have lagged behind other automakers in making this 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. Automakers have not explained their decision not to include immobilizers on certain models.
Videos show thieves lifting the ignition cover off Hyundai and Kia vehicles, then using a screwdriver or USB cable to start them 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 thefts has slowed in the city so far this year. Through Sept. 12, 6,048 vehicles have been seized, but 58 percent of them were Hyundais or Kias, Milwaukee police said Thursday.
A 17-year-old robbery suspect in a viral Kia theft video has been arrested after police used the video and an anonymous tip to track him down, the Journal Sentinel reported. He faces up to 22 years in prison.
Hyundai and Kia have both 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 target vehicles without immobilizers in a coordinated effort,” Kia said.
All 2022 Kias got immobilizers early 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 free steering wheel locks to authorities in affected areas to deter theft. Hyundai said it was also supplying the locks to the police, and in October it would start selling a security kit targeting thieves’ methods.
The institute’s Moore said vulnerable Hyundais and Kias rank among the top 20 vehicles most popular with thieves, a distinction normally reserved for powerful or expensive vehicles, or pickup trucks. The Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat had the highest rate of theft claims.
Many vulnerable Hyundais and Kias are often purchased by low-income people. “These are relatively inexpensive vehicles when purchased new,” Moore said. Owners of some models may have ditched comprehensive insurance to save money and may have had to replace cars on their own, he said.
To help prevent theft, homeowners should open windows, lock doors and take the key or fob with them, says the National Insurance Crime Bureau. They should park in well-lit areas or in a garage. If outdoor parking is required, homeowners should consider installing motion sensor lights.