ST. LOUIS — Joe Barbaglia has had The Club on the shelves at his Southwest Auto Parts store in south St. Louis for decades – but suddenly, he’s struggling to keep up.
Usually, a shipment of about a dozen of the steering wheel locks last for two to three months.
Now, he said he’s lucky if they last more than a week.
And he’s not alone.
One viewer told us he went to six auto parts stores across the area and all were sold out.
That’s because the steering wheel lock is about the only thing police say can stop thieves from stealing some types of Hyundai and Kias made without engine immobilizing technology. The tool of choice thieves are using to steal them are USB cords – and it’s happening all over the country.
Hyundai and Kia owners in Milwaukee filed a class action lawsuit against the automakers in June 2021, which is still pending. There, the thieves have named a gang after their favorite brand: The Kia Boyz.
"The Milwaukee metropolitan area has — quite literally — been transformed into a game of Grand Theft Auto wherein the Kia Boyz are preying on the owners of these Class Vehicles to steal their cars in droves," according to court documents filed in Milwaukee.
In the St. Louis area, the numbers are soaring, too.
Within the past 30 days, 78 Hyundais and 68 Kias have been reported stolen in St. Louis and St. Louis County, according to a police source.
In St. Louis city, police say thefts of Hyundais and Kias have increased by close to 400% compared to this time last year.
St. Louis Maj. Janice Bockstruck said The Club seems to be the only thing that’s stopping the surge in thefts.
“We have not seen any of them with a car club attached to it that have been stolen,” she said.
Barbaglia had two Kias with broken windows and broken ignition columns sitting on his auto repair lot earlier this week.
“When you have a Club on the car and you put it on the steering wheel, they see that yellow thing in a window, they have to deal with this also, besides the ignition switch, besides the wiring, so it's easier if they just go to another car,” he said. “But if they don’t see that bright yellow club on your wheel, they’re going to break your window.”
He spent Monday stocking his shelves with his latest shipment.
“I hope they last a week,” he said.
What are Hyundai and Kia saying?
Given the explosion of thefts nationwide, Kia and Hyundai have vowed to make engine immobilizing standard on all new models.
Attorneys for Kia and Hyundai have noted in federal court filings stemming from that Milwaukee class action lawsuit that their cars did not make the National Insurance Crime Bureau's list of the top 10 most stolen cars in 2021.
Kia and Hyundai attorneys have filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, writing, in part: "Under Wisconsin law and under certain circumstances, an auto manufacturer may be obligated to warn vehicle owners of certain risks it discovers after the vehicles’ sale. Vehicle theft is not one such risk."
Attorneys for the automakers also argued the vehicles are not defective.
"Warranties do not cover situations in which a vehicle owner or lessee simply prefers an alternative material or an alternative design, as a different preference is not a defect. The so-called defect at issue here — the possibility of theft — is simply not covered by either Kia or Hyundai’s express warranty," according to the filing.
Kia and Hyundai would not answer any of the I-Team’s questions, but sent these statements.
Kia wrote: “Kia America is aware of the rise in vehicle thefts of certain trim level vehicles in the St. Louis area. As of the current 2022 Model Year, all Kia vehicles have an engine immobilizer fitted as standard. All Kia vehicles for sale in the U.S. meet or exceed Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.”
Hyundai wrote: “Hyundai Motor America is concerned with the rise in local auto thefts. The safety and well-being of our customers and the community is and will remain our top priority. These vehicles meet or exceed Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and engine immobilizers are standard equipment on all new Hyundai vehicles.”
Bockstruck said she’s pleased to hear newer models will be equipped with engine immobilizers, but added the move doesn’t do much to alleviate the problems for current owners or anyone who might encounter one of the stolen cars speeding through the streets.
She said her department is trying to work with local dealerships to get Clubs to car owners.
“It hasn’t come to fruition yet,” she said of the effort.
For now, Barbaglia recommends people looking for Clubs should call ahead to see if they’re in stock.
Where to buy a steering wheel lock
Clubs are available for $15 at the Five Star Senior Center at 2832 Arsenal Street, the St. Louis' Citizens Service Bureau or at the Department of Revenue. Residents should call ahead to city hall to check availability, bring proof of city residency and pay in cash.
For more information about the clubs, call 314-622-4800 or visit the city's website.
Non-St. Louis residents can find the devices online or at most auto parts stores.
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.