A dangerous challenge spreading on TikTok and other social media platforms has put car owners and police departments across the country on red alert – young teens are being told to steal certain cars off the street with a USB cable.
The goal? Certain makes and models of 2010-2021 Kia and Hyundai vehicles that use a mechanical key rather than a key fob and push button to start the vehicle. Investigators tell CNBC the trend started last year and the number of stolen cars continues to rise across the country.
In St. Petersburg, Florida, police reported that as of mid-July, more than a third of all car thefts there are linked to the TikTok Challenge. Los Angeles officials say the viral trend has led to an 85% increase in car thefts from Hyundais and Kias compared to last year.
According to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, the story is the same in Chicago.
“Alone in our area of responsibility [thefts of certain models are] up over 800% in the last month,” he said. “We see no end in sight.”
The trend challenges teenagers to steal a car off the street by breaking into the car, popping off the steering column and short-circuiting the vehicle with a USB cable, similar to the cable used to charge a phone.
“The viral nature of how this has evolved on social media — it’s accelerated in ways we’ve never seen,” Dart said. “[The perpetrators are] this can be done in 20 to 30 seconds. It’s literally as old-fashioned as you can imagine.”
Dart told CNBC that the thieves are mostly young teenagers – some of them not even old enough to legally drive. The stolen cars are often used for jaunts or other crimes and then left on the side of the road, he said.
“We had an 11-year-old who was one of our most prolific thieves… the idea of them being able to drive is a fantasy,” Dart said.
The thieves post videos online of themselves stealing the cars and driving them, using the hashtag “Kia Boys” – which has more than 33 million views on TikTok. The social media company said in a statement that it “does not condone this behavior, which violates our policies, and will be removed if found on our platform.”
Illinois resident Karen Perkins said her 2019 Kia Sorrento was stolen outside her home on Aug. 6.
“I looked out the window and found my car was gone,” Perkins said.
Days later, she was standing at a red light in a rental car when she said her missing Kia drove right past her.
“I saw a teenager sitting in front,” Perkins said. “I was driving around the block … five kids actually jumped in my car – that’s when I panicked – like I’m going to lose my car forever.”
Perkins tells CNBC she went hunting to track down her Kia. Hours later, she found it abandoned by the side of the road and called the police. She said the abandoned Kia was left badly damaged.
“They crashed the front of my car … they damaged the bumper,” Perkins said. “They even wrote on the top of my ceiling … it says ‘hot car’.”
Tom Gerszewski, a filmmaker based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, follows the viral crime series on his YouTube channel in the Kia Boys Documentary, which has been viewed more than 3.7 million times.
“They do that for after-school entertainment,” Gerszewski told CNBC. “They don’t really have much sympathy for the people they do this to.”
Ken McClain, a Missouri attorney, says part of the blame for the theft spree falls on automakers — Kia and Hyundai — who claim the companies built cars that are too easy to steal.
McClain calls the problem a “defect.” To date, his firm has filed class action lawsuits in 12 states: California, Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Ohio and Texas. He’s also preparing to file in up to seven other states.
“We get dozens of calls every day,” McClain said. “The manufacturer[s] should pay for it.”
Kia and Hyundai could not comment on how many vehicles are included in the make and model years and might be at risk.
A Kia spokesman said the company was concerned about the increase in thefts and had made steering freewheel locks available to law enforcement officials in affected areas.
“It is unfortunate that criminals are using social media to target vehicles without immobilizers in a coordinated effort,” the spokesman said.
“While no car can be made theft-proof, criminals are looking for vehicles equipped exclusively with a steel key and an ignition system with a twist-start -button-to-start” system, making them more difficult to steal. All 2022 Kia models and trims have an immobilizer fitted either at the beginning of the model year or as an ongoing change.”
A Hyundai spokesman said the company is making a similar effort to distribute steering wheel locks and that the company will start selling a security kit next month.
According to Dart of the Cook County Sherriff’s Office, old-school wheel locks could go a long way in thwarting thefts.
“It makes it almost impossible to maneuver the car,” he said.
– CNBC Specials Page Peter Ferrarse contributed to this report.