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Hyundai-Kia theft epidemic: Here's how juveniles and automakers are being held accountable

More than two dozen class action lawsuits have been filed against the automakers.

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — One woman is a single mother of five who can’t get around to get baby formula.

Another woman lost her job because she couldn’t get there.

One man got his car fixed only to have it stolen again.

All are among the client's attorney Johnathan Michaels is now representing as part of a class action lawsuit against Hyundai and Kia

They accuse the automakers of making cars too easy to steal and misleading them by telling them their products were equipped with state-of-the-art technology.

“We will probably get a dozen calls today from people that have had their car stolen,” Michaels said. “And you hear these stories, and it's just tragic, because for the most part, a lot of these cars are owned by Middle America.

“I mean people that are just good folks. That kind of fabric of the nation, and it's the family car, they can’t afford to have their car stolen. It might be gone for a week, maybe a month, maybe a couple of days. Now, they have to pay to have it fixed…They can't afford to Uber everywhere. These people are really hurt. They didn't invite this upon themselves, and then they call Kia, they call Hyundai and say, ‘Hey, you know this isn't right. Will you help?’ And you know what the response is? ‘Talk to the hand.’”

Federal court records show 26 class action lawsuits much like theirs have been filed across the country – including in Missouri and Illinois.

Now, the federal courts want to combine them, and Michaels is asking to lead the charge.

Meanwhile, police and public safety leaders are struggling to keep up to hold the thieves accountable.

As for the small number of those actually caught, at least one juvenile justice leader says he’s seeing good results.

And the automakers say they’re not to blame for any of it.

Holding thieves accountable

Thieves have learned how to steal the cars using USB cords in ignitions built without immobilizers, which prevent engines from starting without computer chips in keys.

In St. Louis County alone, almost 1,000 Kias and Hyundais have been stolen so far this year.

Police have only arrested 165 people for car thefts – about a quarter of them are juveniles.

In St. Louis County, thy end up in Chief Juvenile Officer Rick Gaines’ care.

Of the 624 juveniles who were referred to the juvenile system in 2021, 99 of them, or 16% reoffended.

Most of the successful teens are those who do not end up in detention, Gaines said.

“I've heard a lot of things about how kids need to be locked up, kids need to be detained in our community, but holding kids accountable doesn't mean that every child needs to be in a secure detention facility,” Gaines said.

Juvenile crimes are rated on a point system.

The more points a crime gets, the more likely the suspect is to be detained.

The point system was put in place to eliminate the chances for racial or other biases to play a role in decisions to detain youth, Gaines said.

It ensures the type of crime that’s committed will be assigned the same number of points, regardless of a youth’s color, gender or age.

Car theft is considered a property crime, which doesn’t rank that high.

So, most car thieves are released back to their parents.

“Just because they’re not detained doesn’t mean they’re not held accountable,” he said. “They still have to go to court.”

Gaines said juveniles who stay out of detention are more likely to succeed.

The system wraps them in social services that address the root cause of their reasons for committing crime.

The most common reason is poverty.

So, the county’s juvenile system connects children and their families with social services and other resources in the region, whether it’s help for housing, employment, education or mental health services.

“The kids that we've worked with that never hit our detention door, there is almost a 65% success rate with those kids,” Gaines said.

What the automakers say

Michaels said no matter how many kids come to Gaines, or arrests police make, it won’t stop the problem.

Videos of the so-called "Kia Boys" stealing cars have been online for months.

“That TikTok video has been seen by 33 million people and we're seeing no slow down,” Michaels said.

Michaels said he believes there are more than four million cars without a chip in the key to start the car.

Hyundai and Kia said all of their cars meet federal motor vehicle safety standards.

Michaels said those standards haven’t been updated in years, and immobilizers are an industry standard.

“What's tragic is they sell the same vehicles in other countries with the engine immobilizer, they just don't include it here in the United States,” Michaels said. “In Europe, the federal government in Europe actually does require it over there.

Hyundai and Kia also said consumers chose not to buy vehicles with higher trim levels that included immobilizers.

Michaels said that’s not an excuse.

"They're really preying on people that are not knowledgeable about the characteristics of these cars, and how many consumers really are?” he asked.

Can consumers win in court?

Michaels is confident he can get justice for consumers.

“You cannot go out to consumers and represent this as cutting-edge world class, leading in class technology and not include it,” he said.

Hyundai and Kia have taken steps to try to stop the theft epidemic.

Hyundai made a glass break security kit available Oct. 1.

The MSRP on the kit is $170, and installation costs vary by location. Hyundai sent the I-Team links to a list of authorized dealerships and installers Oct. 1.

But most of them did not have the kits available when the I-Team called to ask how much they would cost to install.

Michaels says he’s found the same kit online for as little as $54 and gotten estimates as high as $700 from dealerships in California.

“Rather than stand behind their products, be good, corporate citizens, what did they do? They look at this as a profit opportunity,” Michaels said.

The move also could bolster the class action lawsuits, Michaels said, because the automakers are admitting there is a problem with their products.

“This fix, if you will, and this whole issue is this going to become another added layer of the litigation here,” he said.

Hyundai and Kia have also sent hundreds of steering wheel locks to police departments across the country.

The locks, commonly known as The Club, are so far the best way police say car owners can prevent their cars from being stolen.

St. Louis County police say Kia has sent 500 steering wheel locks, which they’ve made available at precinct stations to anyone who can prove residency in the precinct and ownership of a Hyundai or Kia.

Michaels said that’s not enough.

“There needs to be a recall to fix the problem that they created, and there needs to be compensation to everyone who has one of these vehicles, whether your car was stolen, or it wasn't stolen because now you have a marketplace that doesn't really want to buy your car.”

Have concerns about your vehicle?

Kia’s Consumer Affairs hotline is 1-800-333-4542.

Hyundai customers can call the Hyundai Consumer Assistance Center at 800-633-5151.

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