The Milwaukee Common Council unanimously approved a resolution Tuesday to pursue possible legal action against Kia and Hyundai for their part in what some officials have called an epidemic of vehicle thefts in the city.
The vote came the day after Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul announced he is leading a coalition of 23 attorneys general to call on Kia and Hyundai to take “swift and comprehensive action to help remedy the crisis of car thefts that has occurred as a result of the companies’ failure to equip their vehicles with anti-theft immobilizers.”
The theft of vehicles made by Kia and Hyundai, fueled by social media videos explaining how easy it is to steal the cars, began in Milwaukee shortly after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since that time, the trend has spread across the nation, leading other cities to sue or consider suing the companies. Most recently, the Madison Common Council authorized the city to hire a Seattle-based law firm to file a federal lawsuit against the two automakers.
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Milwaukee’s resolution calls on the city to hire attorneys to pursue “potential remedies for damages suffered by the City of Milwaukee,” caused by the thefts.
Vehicle thefts are down so far this year compared to last year in Milwaukee. But there were 10,477 vehicle thefts in Milwaukee in 2021, up from 4,507 in 2020 — a 132 percent increase. Milwaukee had the highest increase in vehicle thefts from 2020 to 2021 in the nation, according to a report from the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
Thieves have targeted parking garages, car dealerships, side streets and even driveways.The majority of vehicles stolen in the city are made by the two companies. In 2021, there were 6,970 Kia and Hyundai vehicles reported stolen in Milwaukee, up from a total of 895 in 2020.
“This is not an accident. It’s not just bad luck that Kias and Hyundais have been stolen,” Kaul said during a press conference Monday.
In 2015, 96 percent of vehicles in the nation had engine immobilizers — an anti-theft device, Kaul said. But that same year, immobilizers were standard on only 26 percent of Kia and Hyundai vehicles.
“Your companies made the choice not to include anti-theft immobilizers as standard equipment in many of your vehicle models sold in the United States during a period when every other manufacturer was doing so — and even though these vehicles come equipped with immobilizers when sold in Canada and Europe,” the letter said.
In response, a spokesperson for Kia said the company has taken a number of steps to address the increase, including a free software upgrade to “restrict the unauthorized operation of vehicle ignition systems.”
They’ve also provided more than 23,000 steering wheel locks to law enforcement agencies across the nation.
“We thank the Attorneys General for the opportunity to let them know what we have done and will continue to do to combat this rise in car theft and the role social media has played in encouraging it. We are committed to working with these officials and with law enforcement agencies at the state and local level to ensure vehicle security,” the statement said.
But Kaul said that’s not good enough.
“That is far from a complete solution,” Kaul said about the new software.
“We urge you to do everything in your power to accelerate the implementation of the software upgrade and to provide free alternative protective measures for all those owners whose cars cannot support the software upgrade,” the letter added.
Officials believe stolen vehicles often lead to other crimes, including reckless driving, which has plagued the city of Milwaukee in recent years.
“Stolen vehicles are increasingly used to facilitate the commission of other crimes,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology and criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
Rosenfeld is the author of a report from the Council on Criminal Justice which found that vehicle thefts increased across the nation starting in 2020.
During the start of the pandemic, “the vehicle theft rate in Milwaukee began a steep rise that peaked during the summer of 2021, greatly exceeding the rate in Chicago, and then fell through the end of 2022,” the report found.
Around two years ago, Alder Milele Coggs and Alder Khalif Rainey began to explore how bad the issue had become in Milwaukee. They first started having discussions with the city attorney’s office about possible legal action. Coggs said she wants the issue to get fixed soon.
“I also want the city of Milwaukee to get all that it can in repayment for the cost that it has been for us, whether that has been police costs, fire department costs, department of public work costs or others that, had they not had a defective product … we as a city may not have incurred those expenses,” Coggs said.
Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said he believes the vehicles’ “vulnerability” has impacted many residents’ way of life.
“These thefts have created a sense of unease amongst residents as well as visitors to Milwaukee,” Johnson said during the press conference.
Milwaukee Common Council president Jose Perez said the resolution Tuesday came after several closed door meetings with the city attorney’s office.
“This has gone on way too long,” Perez said Monday.
Fueled by social media?
Online videos, often posted on TikTok and YouTube, explain in detail how easy it is to steal newer versions of Kias and Hyundais.
“It is something that has been spurred on by social media, but it’s social media about the vulnerability of those vehicles,” Kaul said.
A group of teenagers in Milwaukee known as the “Kia Boyz” is helping lead the increase. A 2022 documentary with members of the group has over 6 million views on YouTube. In recent months, “Kia Challenge” videos have been posted on social media, encouraging others to steal the vehicles.
Elena Hernandez, a spokesperson for YouTube, said the platform has attempted to remove those videos.
“YouTube’s Harmful & Dangerous policies prohibit videos that encourage dangerous or illegal activities that risk serious physical harm or death. We also don’t allow videos that show instructional theft. As a result, we have removed videos depicting the Kia Challenge in recent months,” Hernandez said.
She added that the platform has allowed some videos to remain on the site, if they’re intended to be “educational, documentary, scientific, or artistic.”
A video titled “I Stole a Kia With a TikTok Hack,” has been on the platform for over 5 months, with nearly 3 million views.
TikTok has also said they remove videos that promote or enable criminal activity from their platform.
“TikTok does not condone this behavior which violates our policies and will be removed if found on our platform.” a spokesperson for the company said in an email.
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