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'You're kind of stuck': St. Louis Hyundai, Kia drivers sue over car thefts

For months, the I-Team has been following the triple-digit percentage surge in Kia and Hyundai thefts.

ST. LOUIS — As thefts of certain models of Hyundais and Kias continue to rise, there are two sides. 

The vehicles being targeted are Kia models from 2011 to 2021 and Hyundai models from 2015 to 2021.

There are the car companies who say they’ve done nothing wrong. 

“There's nothing technically wrong with the vehicles," James Bell, a Kia spokesman told our I-Team on Feb. 15.

There are also people like St. Louis native Latoya Jones.

“I don't want it. I don't want to deal with it. I'm afraid to drive it," said Latoya Jones, a Kia owner and plaintiff.

Jones has already had her Kia stolen once from outside her apartment complex in University City. Police found it 19 days later. Between repairs and insurance, it cost her more than $3,000.

“So I feel like they should have to pay for that," she said. 

She believes it’s only a matter of time before it happens again. 

“I'm afraid to take it anywhere because I'm not sure if it’s going to be out there when I come back," said Jones. 

She’s suing the automaker.

“I can't believe that they made a vehicle and put it out there where people can steal it so easy," she said. 

In St. Louis County, where Jones’ car was stolen, police say Hyundais and Kias account for 56% of car thefts. Two years ago during the same time period, the same car brands accounted for around 8% of thefts, according to data from St. Louis County Police.

City police say hundreds of Kias and Hyundais have been stolen in St. Louis so far this year alone. They account for 52% of all reported car thefts. The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department says in 2022, that number was 9 percent. In 2021, it was 8 percent.

A spokesperson with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says NHTSA will continue to closely monitor the situation and "the manufacturers’ efforts to address the issue.” 

Industry experts say the rise in car thefts has been largely driven by social media. Videos show how to exploit weaknesses on certain models that lack engine immobilizers. In seconds, cars can be stolen with nothing more than a screwdriver and USB charger.

Jones told the I-Team a lawsuit is the only way to get her money back and hold these car companies accountable. Her attorney Mitch Stoddard filed two lawsuits against Hyundai and Kia this week, on behalf of Jones and another car owner. He said the lawsuits are among the first against the companies in our area.

“This seems to be a profit-driven lack of following safety measures at the expense of consumers that purchase these vehicles," said Mitch Stoddard, a St. Louis attorney.

We asked if others are to blame too.

“Let's talk about big tech," said the I-Team's Paula Vasan. “A lot of the people that are stealing these cars learn to do it on social media. Do you think social media should be held responsible?”

“This is something where word would have gotten out without social media being involved whatsoever," said Stoddard.

Right now, he’s pointing the finger at Hyundai and Kia. He’s urging the automakers to buy cars back from drivers, compensating them for their suffering. The I-Team has heard from multiple victims, including Jones, who said insurance companies only covered a car rental for a month. But after their stolen cars were found, repairs took around 4 months. That meant spending their own money on rideshares and other forms of transportation. 

“What's keeping you from getting rid of this car?” asked Vasan.

“Nobody wants to have it. Nobody will take it. Not even a dealership. They won't take it. They don't want any parts of it. Or they're trying to give you a low price for it. So you're kind of stuck," said Jones. 

The federal government requires that when a key is removed from a car, the steering column locks up so the car can’t move. In response to lawsuits, Kia and Hyundai say they’ve rolled out software upgrades and other measures to prevent theft. Jones and her attorney argue they’re too little too late. 

Both Hyundai and Kia say there is no quality issue or defect with these vehicles, and they all meet or exceed Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

Hyundai spokesperson Ira Gabriel said: “Hyundai is committed to ensuring the quality and integrity of our products. All Hyundai vehicles meet the anti-theft requirements of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 114. In response to increasing thefts targeting Hyundai vehicles without push-button ignitions and immobilizing anti-theft devices in the U.S., Hyundai has introduced a free anti-theft software upgrade to prevent the vehicles from starting during a method of theft popularized on TikTok and other social media.  All Hyundai vehicles produced since November 2021 are equipped with an engine immobilizer as standard equipment. Hyundai is also providing free steering wheel locks to law enforcement agencies for distribution to local residents who own or lease affected models.”

A Kia spokesperson said: “Kia has been releasing enhanced security software to restrict the unauthorized operation of vehicle ignition systems on certain models not equipped with an immobilizer. Kia is notifying eligible owners by mail when the software is available for their vehicles and instructing them to bring their vehicle to the nearest Kia dealership for the free upgrade, which takes under an hour to install. Many owners have already been to their dealer to receive the software upgrade and it will be available for owners of additional affected vehicles over the next few months. In addition to the software upgrade, Kia continues to make steering wheel locks available to owners of affected vehicles at no cost through interested local law enforcement agencies. The company remains concerned about incidents of car theft targeting certain Kia models, encouraged in some cases by social media content promoting criminal conduct, and is committed to supporting law enforcement and owners in addressing these crimes. Kia owners with questions may contact our Customer Care team directly at 1-800-333-4542 (4Kia). In addition, a special section of the Owner’s Portal at Kia.com has been published for owners to research software upgrade eligibility and availability, and receive more information on ordering a steering wheel lock if applicable at https://ksupport.kiausa.com/ConsumerAffairs/SWLD.”

You can read the full lawsuits below:

Want to get in touch about this story or another investigative tip? Email paula@ksdk.com.

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