Kia, Hyundai sued by NYC over TikTok car theft challenge

New York City is the latest municipality to file a suit against Kia and Hyundai over the dramatic increase of stolen vehicles relating to a 2021 viral TikTok car theft challenge.

The automakers are charged with failing to install anti-theft devices in most models before 2021, creating an environment ripe for car thieves who figured out how to hotwire the insecure vehicles with just a common screwdriver and USB cable.

The thieves then posted the instructions on TikTok, leading to the viral, and at times deadly, “KIA challenge,” which essentially encouraged other TikTok users to steal the Kia and Hyundai model vehicles across the US.

Court documents filed in Manhattan court on June 6th say the sharp rise of Kia and Hyundai car thefts following the viral challenge forced the New York City Police Department to divert time and money away from other pressing law enforcement activities, costing the city and its taxpayers millions.

Several other US cities, including Baltimore, Cleveland, San Diego, Seattle, St. Louis, and Milwaukee – where the challenge originated – have also sued the automakers in recent months over similar complaints.

The so-called "KIA challenge," started by a group of teens as a prank, eventually turned deadly with "at least 14 reported crashes and eight fatalities," according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The New York City complaint says that Kia and Hyundai have “created a public nuisance that could have been mitigated or avoided had they followed industry-wide standards and installed immobilizer devices, or an equivalent anti-theft device, in all their vehicles.”

The anti-theft “immobilizer” – notably absent from all Kia and Hyundai models between 2011 and 2022 – was considered a standard anti-theft feature installed in most other manufactured vehicles from the same time period, the suit said.

The suit accuses the auto manufacturers of putting profits before safety, thereby “forcing the City… to divert funds and risk officer safety to combat the growing burden caused by increased Hyundai and Kia vehicle theft and reckless driving on city streets.”

City officials said the number of Kia and Hyundai vehicles reported stolen not only doubled in 2022 but increased six times over in the first four months of 2023, compared to the same months last year, jumping from 148 to 977 thefts.

By comparison, thefts of BMW, Ford, Honda, Mercedes, Nissan, and Toyota vehicles have fallen this year, according to the City.

Data has also shown that car insurance theft claims for 2015-2019 Hyundai and Kia vehicles have nearly doubled compared to other manufacturer models from the same period.

Two major US insurance companies have even stopped offering new policies on Kia and Hyundai vehicles from those years.

Latest actions

Since the TikTok challenge debacle began, both Kia and Hyundai have made the immobilizers standard on all vehicles manufactured after November 2021.

In February, both automakers released a free anti-theft software upgrade for the 8.3 million Kia and Hyundai vehicles on the road lacking anti-theft devices.

In April, more than a dozen US State Attorney Generals signed a letter requesting that the NHTSA force the automakers to issue a mandatory or voluntary recall of all the affected vehicles due to the safety issues.

Last month, Kia and Hyundai agreed to to settle a class action lawsuit, filed in California, for $200 million to cover consumer losses resulting from the thefts.

Kia said it is working with New York City law enforcement to combat car thefts, but also called the New York City lawsuit "without merit."

The New York City filing seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.