Jeramey Jannene

AG Kaul, 21 Other States Demand Kia, Hyundai Address Thefts

Could be precursor to multi-state lawsuit over autos' defect that makes thefts easy.

By - Mar 20th, 2023 04:28 pm
A Kia parked on a City of Milwaukee street. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A Kia parked on a City of Milwaukee street. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee and Wisconsin are ramping up their fight against Kia and Hyundai for a series of vulnerabilities that make many of their vehicles susceptible to theft. It’s an issue that has led to record vehicle thefts, and officials say has imposed great costs not just on victims, but on local governments.

Attorney General Josh Kaul is leading a bipartisan group of 23 attorneys general (representing 22 states and the District of Columbia) that issued a letter demanding the companies act, a potential precursor to a lawsuit. The Milwaukee Common Council, said Council President José G. Pérez, is expected to authorize a lawsuit Tuesday against the companies.

“We are calling on these companies to step up and take action to prevent this crisis from continuing,” said Kaul at a press conference Monday morning at the Milwaukee Police Department Administration Building. Speakers blasted the companies for offering a “slap in the face,” engaging in “corporate negligence” and dragging their feet.

“This is not an accident. It isn’t just bad luck that Kias and Hyundais have been stolen,” said Kaul. “In 2015, anti-theft immobilizers were standard equipment on 96% of other manufacturer’s vehicles. But Kia and Hyundai had immobilizers on only 26% of their vehicles. The same vehicles that were sold in Canada and Europe had anti-theft immobilizers.”

The lack of an immobilizer (key fob) is compounded by the fact that the vehicles have an ignition that can be started by breaking the steering column and using a USB cable to gain the torque to turn a metal piece. More than two thirds of all vehicles stolen in Milwaukee in 2021 were made by Kia or Hyundai.

“I like to think of Milwaukee as a leader nationally, but quite frankly, when it comes to the issue of thefts of Kia and Hyundai vehicles I wish it would have started somewhere else,” said Mayor Cavalier Johnson.

The theft surge first began appearing in local crime stats in the fall of 2020, and by 2021 there were a record 10,487 thefts reported. But, to the initial confusion of city officials, it took time to spread nationwide. That changed in the summer of 2022 when instructions began to appear on TikTok and cities across the country experienced their own surges.

“That vulnerability has been costly and disruptive to victims,” said the mayor. Johnson said the resulting thefts have also been a burden to the Milwaukee Police Department, Milwaukee Fire Department and Department of Public Works.

Kaul noted that vehicle theft is a crime itself, but that the vehicles are often then driven recklessly or used to commit other crimes.

“A disturbing trend we have seen in recent years is many of our shooters are shooting from stolen vehicles and many of our shooting victims are being shot in stolen vehicles,” said Milwaukee Police Department assistant chief Paul Formolo. “It clearly makes our streets more dangerous… we obviously will not arrest our way out of this problem.”

While Kia and Hyundai have addressed the immobilizer issue in new vehicles, many of the older vehicles still in use are vulnerable.

The number of vehicles being stolen in Milwaukee has fallen from its 2021 peak, first by 23% in 2022 and now by 31% in 2023. “Even so, older Kias and Hyundais are still targeted,” said Johnson. It’s also still at levels that far exceed the pre-crisis figures.

Formolo attributed some of the slowdown to a change in police tactics, including a traffic safety unit and a bait car. “8,000 victims last year is still way too many,” said Formolo.

Pérez and Kaul both acknowledged the February free software update announcement from Hyundai as a positive, but that more details were needed, including a timeline and remedies for those who can’t utilize it.

Kaul said both companies continue to “drag their feet and refuse to accept responsibility.” He called the software update far from a complete solution.

Pérez is concerned about the damage already done. “There still remains the question of how to make owners whole, and restore some of the damage caused to communities like Milwaukee as a result of what seems like corporate negligence,” said the council president.

The software fix is available now for some Hyundai vehicles and is to be eventually available for vehicles made by Kia, of which Hyundai owns a significant stake and partners with on engineering. It includes three notable changes, according to Hyundai: the vehicle will no longer start without a key present in the ignition; using the keyless entry fob to lock the vehicle will activate an “ignition kill” feature preventing the vehicle from starting until disabled; and the alarm is to be extended to one minute from 30 seconds.

Kia owners will be eligible for the update “over the next few months,” said the company in a statement.

All Hyundai vehicles produced since November 2021 have included an immobilizer key. The vulnerability is present in many Kias made between 2011 and 2021 and Hyundais between 2015 and 2021.

Pérez said the council has spent multiple closed-session meetings discussing legal options with City Attorney Tearman Spencer‘s office, but declined to offer any comment on strategy. The full council, said Pérez, will vote to authorize a lawsuit at its meeting Tuesday. “We have come to the point where we are ready,” said the council president. Spencer, via text message, deferred comment on the city’s strategy to a future press conference or release following the council’s vote.

Kaul declined to say if he intended to file a lawsuit.

The City of Madison‘s Common Council voted to move forward with a lawsuit earlier this month. Milwaukee’s suit, and that of other cities, would likely be combined into a larger, multi-jurisdictional claim. Lawsuits from private citizens are also ongoing.

More about the Kia and Hyundai Theft Epidemic

Read more about Kia and Hyundai Theft Epidemic here

Categories: Public Safety, Weekly

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