CLEVELAND — As the number of cars stolen across Northeast Ohio skyrockets, the costs of those crimes is something that could hit all drivers in the wallet.
According to Cleveland police numbers, reports of car theft jumped more than 116% in the last 14 weeks of 2022 compared to the same period a year earlier, rising from 923 reports of cars stolen in the last part of 2021 to 1,995 cars in 2022.
And things haven’t slowed down in the new year. In the first four weeks of 2023, the number of cars reported stolen to Cleveland police has averaged nearly one car every hour of every day according to city numbers.
“At first I was stunned,” said Felix Lopez, “I’m like my car’s gone.”
Lopez had his 2016 Hyundai Sonata stolen from in front of his home on Cleveland’s west side in January.
“That’s my transportation, the only transportation my family has,” said Lopez.
Police records show his car was one of 164 reported stolen in the city that week, an average of more than 23 cars stolen each day.
“This is taking auto theft to a whole new limit that we’ve quite frankly, we’ve never seen,” said Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley.
He said the crime wave appears to be fueled by social media posts exposing a security vulnerability in some models of Kias and Hyundais.
Numbers from the prosecutor’s office show 656 Kias and Hyundais were reported stolen across Cuyahoga County in December.
“Me, I was that person like ‘oh no, that’s not going to happen to me,” said Lopez.
When it did, he immediately posted pictures of his car online.
Within hours, a friend messaged him, telling Lopez he spotted his car in the drive-through line of a fast food restaurant.
“I’m not thinking of danger,” said Lopez. “I’m not thinking of anything. I’m thinking of getting my car back and going home.”
He drove a neighbor’s car to the restaurant.
But when he tried to block his stolen car in, video shows the driver accelerate forward, hitting the neighbor’s car, and turning Lopez’s car on its side.
On the recording, the teenage passenger gets out of the car, holding a gun.
“I’m assuming he thought because my car was bigger it can push the car out of the way,” said Lopez.
Both cars were heavily damaged.
Lopez said he now works overtime as a barber to pay for the repairs.
“It’s ridiculous, people work hard and they scrape up what they can to try to get something nice and they’re just out here, taking it from these people,” he said.
And the bills are adding up.
“When people are showing people how to steal or how to get away with things, that’s going to cost all of us down the road,” said Scott Holeman, a spokesman with the Insurance Information Institute.
He said as insurance companies pay out claims connected to the thefts, it’s likely to hit us all.
“Is everybody going to see a certain x-percent increase? I don’t know what we can say about that,” said Holeman. “But I do think that we will see insurance rates rise until we can reverse some of these trends.”
Liz Neidich is already expecting it.
Someone broke into and stole her 2017 Hyundai in October from in front of her Detroit-Shoreway home.
Police found the car the next day.
But three months later, she’s still waiting for repairs.
“This is out of control,” said Neidich. “People’s lives are being ruined. I know that there are more serious issues that a lot of prosecutors and judges have to deal with, but I need there to be more consequences.”
Hoping to put the brakes on these thefts, the Crime Strategies Unit inside the prosecutor’s office is working with police to identify the thieves and get them off the streets.
“I know we have one juvenile who’s in the process of being charged, he’s suspected in the theft of 30 different cars,” said O’Malley. “Of Hyundais and Kias. And this individual was 14 years old.”
Prosecutors said some of the stolen cars are turning up at robberies, murders and other crime scenes, but in many cases, they say, the cars are simply being used to joyride.
“Instead of calling an Uber, they’re just stealing a Hyundai,” said O’Malley.
These thieves are leaving a trail of broken glass and empty wallets behind.
“I have every intention of getting my car fixed and trading it in,” said Lopez. “I don’t feel safe. I mean just like they’ll take my car again, just for you know, giggles.”
In response to multiple requests for an interview to discuss the spike in car thefts and what Cleveland Police are doing to combat the problem, a spokesperson sent the following statement:
“The Cleveland Division of Police advises vehicle owners to take precautions to lessen the likelihood of becoming victims of theft of or from motor vehicles. If possible, vehicle owners should park in a garage or well-lit area. Always “put your junk in your trunk” – do not leave valuables in plain sight. Thefts from motor vehicles are crimes of opportunity and vehicles with valuables such as purses, computer bags, or even change left in the center console are often targeted. Owners of Kia or Hyundai vehicles are advised to contact the car manufacturer to purchase steering wheel locks to lessen the likelihood of theft. Victims of theft of or from motor vehicles are advised to contact law enforcement.”