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Overwhelmed: Surge in stolen Kias, Hyundais leaves anger, heartbreak in its wake

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Posted at 6:27 PM, Dec 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-06 19:20:49-05

CLEVELAND — A still-grieving mother who lost the trinkets and mementos belonging to her late son; an educator and the first car that she could call her own; single parents whose vehicles are their financial lifeline: The victims of a surging trend of stolen Kias and Hyundais represent every community, demographic and socioeconomic status in Northeast Ohio. However, for many of them, recovering their vehicle is only the first step in a long and arduous process.

Over the past year, local police departments have been overwhelmed by a dramatic and precipitous increase in the number of Kias and Hyundais being stolen. Although Cleveland’s increase hasn’t topped the triple-digit increases seen in other communities, the Cleveland Division of Police has reported a nearly 20% increase in motor vehicle theft through mid-November. CPD’s Second District, which includes many popular West Side neighborhoods and shopping districts, has been the epicenter, reporting a 38% increase in motor vehicle theft. Once a stolen vehicle is recovered by police, the first step in the car’s journey home is through the impound lot near Clark Avenue and Quigley Road in the city’s industrial valley.

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The typically sleepy impound lot has effectively become an assembly line as newly-recovered vehicles are brought for processing and newly-claimed vehicles are driven away by their owners. Fresh off another drop-off, one tow driver rolled down his window to tell News 5 that this was the ninth Kia or Hyundai that he had dropped off on Tuesday alone. Another driver estimated that at least 30 new Kias or Hyundais are processed through the facility every day.

One of them belongs to Chivon Wolfe’s daughter, who is a teacher’s aid at an East Side STEM school.

“I met my daughter down here, who had her car stolen at work. It’s a Kia,” Wolfe said. “She received a paper in the mail saying her car was here. It was stolen on Nov. 10. She was taking the kids on a field trip actually and when she got back, her car was gone. They reviewed the surveillance and these boys took the car in less than three minutes.”

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Wolfe said it was her daughter’s first car as an adult — her first major purchase — after entering the workforce.

“It’s frustrating. She’s angry, trying to process it. She’s young. She got that car on her own, her own money. It hurts a little different,” Wolfe said.

Brook Park resident, Sandi Sly, knows what that hurt feels like, too. Sly’s 2021 Kia had been missing for roughly a week after it was stolen out of her apartment complex’s parking lot the week of Thanksgiving. Three other Kias and Hyundais in her complex had their windows busted out that night.

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Although her vehicle was recovered in Cleveland earlier this week, the most important items inside of it were missing.

“The worst thing is that [the suspect] got rid of some mementoes that were from my son that passed away. That hurts the most,” Sly said. “It is overwhelming. I’ve cried. It goes back to what was personal and they got rid of it. That’s the whole thing. Cars can be repaired and so forth, but that stuff I can’t get back.”

As News 5 has extensively reported, the dramatic increase in reported thefts of Kias and Hyundais largely traces back to the ignition systems present in those vehicles, specifically those with key-turn ignition systems. Kia vehicles from model year 2011 to 2021 and Hyundai vehicles from model year 2016 to 2021 are especially vulnerable due to the absence of anti-theft devices that have long been standard for other automakers. The devices, 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.

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Federal guidelines do not require automakers to install passive immobilizers, although other automakers other than Kia and Hyundai have featured the devices in their standard trim packages for more than a decade.

The security vulnerability in these vehicles was only recently discovered and put on social media.

Tutorials on the social media site TikTok under the #KiaBoys hashtag 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.

The sheer number of vehicles being stolen has placed a tremendous amount of strain on the multitude of industries related to all things cars. Tow companies are constantly being called to tow recovered stolen vehicles; insurance companies are experiencing a backlog in claims to process; dealerships and car service centers are out of parts needed to make repairs; automotive glass is in high demand.

“It’s just upsetting that so many people are going through this. I know I’m not the only one,” Sly said. “Body shops are not taking any more. They are overwhelmed. Parts, they said, are weeks or months backordered. Every place I called, they are overwhelmed. They are not taking on any more cars because they are so overwhelmed.”

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Both Sly and Wolfe are beyond frustrated by the perceived lack of immediacy from Kia and Hyundai in rolling out a fix for the ignition vulnerability. The South Korean automaker has been providing free steering wheel locks to local police departments to pass out to their residents. However, the quick fix has only proven to be a band-aid to a gaping wound that needs emergency surgery.

The steering wheel locks are often claimed on the same day they arrive.

“When those kids first stole that Kia [and put it on TikTok], Kia should have known something was wrong,” Wolfe said. “They needed to stop production and put out a recall. Fix whatever it is. Give everybody a club. It’s absolute negligence and greed.”

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Sly, whose 2021 Kia is the last model year to feature the vulnerability, said an immediate recall should have been issued.

“My car has less than 6,000 miles on it. You think they would get a hold of people that have these cars and offer them to come in as a recall and get it taken care of,” Sly said.

The apparent epicenter of stolen Kias and Hyundais in Cleveland, the police department’s Second District, has pleaded with residents to keep an eye out for parked Kias and Hyundais that they are not familiar with.

Lt. Stephen Beckner posted a lengthy plea on the Second District’s Facebook page. The post in its entirety is included below.

“As you are all aware, Kia and Hyundai thefts are prevalent within our district and city.  This is not unique to Cleveland, but something that we are dealing with daily.  The thefts are occurring on every corner of the district.  What's more troubling, is that the violent crime that is occurring is more times than not involving one of these stolen vehicles.  Additionally, accidents are occurring due to the occupants of these vehicles "joy riding" and wrecking either carelessly or on purpose, because there are no perceived repercussions for their actions, which in turn victimizes more residents.  

With that said, I am coming to you for your assistance with getting word out to citizens in the Second District area regarding this crime spree.  I am asking to encourage residents that own a Kia or a Hyundai to acquire a steering wheel locking device, commonly known as "The Club" to make the theft of their vehicles more difficult.  Per Sgt Flores in Community Policing, our division received 80 of these from Hyundai to hand out to verified owners, and they were gone the day we received them.  She is expecting more, but unaware of when.  I asked for a courtesy call when that does happen to let you know.  Hopefully it is sooner rather than later. 

I appreciate the communications that I received on my last request regarding junk vehicles on the street.  We successfully moved well over 50 vehicles and are still receiving information of vehicles to check.  Please continue to encourage residents to reach out to me with these concerns.  To combine these 2 requests, have residents specifically look out for parked Kias or Hyundais that they are not familiar with on their street.  Please contact me with these, or call our non-emergency number to report 621-1234.  

I promise you that we are gathering more and more information on these situations daily, and are analyzing different ways to stop this behavior departmentally.  A big help would be if residents with these cars each acquired a Club anyway that they can.”

RELATED: Cleveland police report double-digit auto theft increases across west side neighborhoods