CLEVELAND — Through mid-November, auto theft in Cleveland has surged nearly 20% over last year, largely fueled by an ignition system vulnerability in certain model year Kia's and Hyundai's, according to Cleveland police data. Auto theft has been especially prevalent across the city’s western neighborhoods, including a 38% increase year-to-date in the Second District.
The dramatic increase in reported auto theft in the city comes as local police departments nationwide have reported similar increases, largely due to the absence of anti-theft devices in certain Kia's and Hyundai's that have long been standard for other automakers. When installed, the anti-theft devices, which are called passive immobilizers, prevent a car from being started unless the ignition system is matched with a unique key. This matching is typically orchestrated by corresponding computer chips in both the key and the ignition.
Federal guidelines do not require automakers to install passive immobilizers, however other automakers other than Kia and Hyundai have featured the devices in their standard trim packages for more than a decade.
Although the non-profit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and its sister organization, the Highway Loss Data Institute, determined certain model Kia and Hyundai vehicles from 2015 to 2019 did not feature a passive immobilizer system, the security vulnerability in these vehicles was only recently discovered and put on social media.
Tutorials on the social media site TikTok under the hashtag #KiaBoys first broadcast this vulnerability, showing that certain Kias and Hyundais with ‘turn-key’ ignition systems could be started with an inexpensive USB drive once the steering column is peeled back. Vehicles with push-start ignition systems are less susceptible.
Then the floodgates opened.
“Hyundai and Kia have lagged behind in equipping their vehicles with these standard passive immobilizers. For example, only 26% of Hyundai and Kia’s 2015 vehicle series were equipped with standard immobilizers whereas 96% of other manufacturers had these standard immobilizers,” said Kay Wakeman, the director of insurance outreach at HLDI. “One could say they were sort of getting away with it for a while. No one kind of realized how easy these vehicles were to steal and then the switch flipped. Suddenly the news got out and they were being stolen a lot.”
Dozens of Kias and Hyundais have been reported stolen in Cleveland over the past month, largely concentrated in densely-populated western neighborhoods like Ohio City.
On Wednesday afternoon, a blue Kia Forte with a shattered back window and peeled steering column was dumped by an unknown suspect at Ohio City Gas in the 3500-block of Lorain Road. Clerk Kimberly Thompson was working at the gas station when she and others began hearing the distinct sound of a car alarm. Then a customer came into the gas station and reported the Forte on pump 7 was left running but no one was inside.
Thompson immediately knew the car was stolen. Police later confirmed her suspicions.
“It was still running. Yeah, the car was still running. [The suspects] can’t turn them off once [the ignition is peeled and the car is started],” Thompson said. “I think one of the reasons they left it was because the alarm kept going off. They thought, ‘“okay, we can’t take this any further.’”
Thompson said she notified police and reviewed the gas station’s security video, which showed the unknown suspect dumping the vehicle and immediately getting into another Kia vehicle with a broken window. Thompson suspects that the getaway vehicle had also been stolen.
“They know what they are doing. They are looking for the Kia's and then they ride around in them to steal other Kia's,” Thompson said. “They know that they can get away with it because they are in a stolen Kia; there’s nothing to trace back to. Unfortunately, that car, even if we would have gotten the plate, it was going to trace back to someone that was looking for their car.”
According to data published by the IIHS/HLDI, among 2015-2019 model-year vehicles, theft claims were nearly twice as common for Hyundai and Kia vehicles as a group compared to other manufacturers. Other communities across the country have reported massive surges in thefts involving Kia's and Hyundai's, including Grand Rapids, Michigan which reported nearly four thefts or attempted thefts per day between May 1 and July 7, 2022.
Across Cleveland, the Division of Police reports that total auto theft has increased more than 18% through Nov. 19 compared to the same time period in 2021. On a district-by-district basis, the numbers are even more telling, especially on the city’s west side.
According to CDP data, auto theft in the First District has increased more than 19%. In the Second District, which includes Ohio City, Brooklyn Centre, Old Brooklyn and Tremont, auto theft is up a whopping 38% over the prior year. The Third District has reported a 28% increase.
“Owners that do not have comprehensive coverage are especially vulnerable because if the vehicle is gone, their insurance is not going to cover that,” Wakeman said. “That’s a turning point as well for folks as they are thinking about whether they need comprehensive coverage or not. Certainly a steering wheel lock is a great deterrent to theft. Parking in a garage if you can — if you have that option — would be a deterrent. But I absolutely recommend that people take steps to prevent this from happening. Also check with their insurance agent or their insurance company to make sure they do have comprehensive coverage and what exactly it covers for them.”
Thompson said a customer coming in and saying their vehicle had been stolen has practically become a weekly occurrence. The results can be financially devastating.
“They are victims to pointless crimes to be honest,” Thompson said. “It’s sad. It’s sad because people work hard for their money and these cars are just being taken for no reason really. They just joyride in them and then leave them stranded. It’s a shame because we are all working hard and nobody wants to get their things stolen.”
While Kia and Hyundai work on a software patch to clamp down on the thefts, the automakers have been providing steering wheel locks to local police departments for distribution. However, those small shipments of steering wheel locks are quickly claimed, due in part to how popular the vehicles have become as well as how concerned those vehicle owners have become.