Thieves key to hack that leaves Hyundai and Kia cars vulnerable

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

An insurance industry group says these cars are stolen at nearly twice the rate of 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 spread to several Midwestern cities and as far away as Colorado and New Mexico after training videos surfaced on social media.

The Highway Loss Data Institute, a unit of the Insurance Institute for Highways, 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 together had a percentage of 1.21. One year of insured vehicle equals one vehicle insured for one year.

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

Chip keys, which started 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 lack an immobilizer system in many versions of lower-priced vehicles from the two South Korean automakers such as the Kia Rio and Sportage and Hyundai Accent, the institute said.

“Our previous studies show that vehicle theft losses decreased after immobilizers were introduced,” said Matt Moore, the institute’s senior vice president. “Unfortunately, Hyundai and Kia have fallen behind other automakers when it comes to standard equipment.”

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

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

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 thefts has slowed in the city so far this year. As of Sept. 12, 6,048 vehicles had been impounded, but 58 percent of them were Hyundais or Kias, Milwaukee police said Thursday.

A 17-year-old theft suspect in a viral Kia theft 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 have acknowledged in statements that thieves steal some of their vehicles and said they meet federal safety standards. “It is unfortunate that criminals are using social media to target vehicles without immobilizers in a concerted effort,” Kia said.

All 2022 Kias got an immobilizer either at the start 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 authorities in the affected areas to prevent theft. Hyundai also said it 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 with thieves, a distinction usually reserved for high-powered or expensive vehicles or 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 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, owners should roll up windows, lock doors and carry the key or fob, says the National Insurance Crime Bureau. They should be parked in well-lit areas or in garages. If they must park outdoors, owners should consider installing motion sensor lights.

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