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Kia and Hyundai face pressure to stem the rampant thefts of their vehicles

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Kias and Hyundais are increasingly popular not among car buyers but among car thieves. Millions of these cars are unusually easy to steal, and lately they've been getting stolen a lot. As NPR's Camila Domonoske reports, the companies are under growing pressure to do more to stop these thefts.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Sawyer McDuffie's 2018 Hyundai Elantra wasn't where he'd left it, or maybe he'd parked on a different street.

SAWYER MCDUFFIE: And I was like, I'm pretty sure it was there, though.

DOMONOSKE: So the D.C. resident grabbed his key fob and did that thing where you press the lock button twice so it beeps.

MCDUFFIE: And I didn't hear it on that street. So I went to the street over, and it wasn't there, either. And I went to another street over, and it was also not there. And I was like, oh, God.

DOMONOSKE: That sinking feeling is familiar to thousands and thousands of Hyundai and Kia owners. The brands are sister companies. And between 2011 and 2022, lots of their more basic, no-bells-and-whistles vehicles came without an immobilizer. That's a feature in most modern cars that means they won't start unless they detect a key. Without them, the vehicles are incredibly easy to steal.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIRES SCREECHING)

DOMONOSKE: You can see the results on city streets or videos on TikTok and Instagram - young people, sometimes just kids, careening around in stolen Kias and Hyundais...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah. Yeah.

DOMONOSKE: ...Cheering each other on as they swerve back and forth in cars with part of the steering column popped off. McDuffie, as it happens, got to see video of his own car being stolen on a beautiful spring day.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CHIRPING)

DOMONOSKE: A neighbor's security camera caught the whole thing. Three young-looking thieves on electric scooters check out the car, then...

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS BREAKING)

DOMONOSKE: ...Smash a window. They wait as some people pass by.

MCDUFFIE: Then they fold up their scooters and pass them through the window.

DOMONOSKE: McDuffie is watching the video, describing what he sees.

MCDUFFIE: So the two smaller ones get in the car through the window. And they - I assume; I can't see exactly, but - get in the front seat to do whatever they need to do to hotwire it.

DOMONOSKE: Less than a minute later, the car takes off.

MCDUFFIE: And that is the totality of it.

DOMONOSKE: The thieves racked up hundreds of dollars of speeding tickets before they dumped his Hyundai. McDuffie has it back now. He shouldn't have to pay the tickets, but he did have to pay for car repairs, which took weeks. Nationwide, thefts of Kias and Hyundais have been rising sharply. Kwame Raoul, the attorney general of Illinois, says these cars simply should not be this easy to steal.

KWAME RAOUL: If you have vehicles that holler out, oh, hey; come take me, it makes it easier for a criminal perpetrator to get away scot-free.

DOMONOSKE: It's now common knowledge, thanks in part to social media, that these vehicles are easy to steal. Last year 10% of all the Kias in Chicago were stolen - 1 in 10.

RAOUL: We can't put a law enforcement officer on every corner of every street everywhere there's a Kia or there's a Hyundai. That's impractical.

DOMONOSKE: And he points out these thefts aren't just annoying. They're dangerous. After months of complaints, Hyundai and Kia did make a free software upgrade available to some drivers. The update programs the car so when it's locked, it won't start unless it detects the key fob so that, you know, you need the key to start the car. But it's an optional update, not a recall like automakers do for dangerous vehicle flaws. In separate statements, both companies also noted they're distributing steering wheel locks. Here's Kia spokesman James Bell reading his statement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES BELL: The company remains concerned about incidents of car theft targeting certain Kia models and, in some cases, encouraged by social media content promoting criminal conduct.

DOMONOSKE: That's not enough for critics like Kwame Raoul. He's part of a group of attorneys general who are pushing the automakers and the feds for a full recall of these easy-to-steal vehicles. Kia and Hyundai have also been sued by drivers and by cities and by insurance companies. Meanwhile, Sawyer McDuffie, whose Hyundai was stolen in D.C., is also frustrated with the companies. Take that software update. Not every Hyundai is eligible for it, but it turns out his was.

MCDUFFIE: And the week it was stolen, my parents got, to my permanent address, a letter from Hyundai.

DOMONOSKE: Like thousands of Kia and Hyundai owners, he got that letter too late. Camila Domonoske, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.