TikTok ‘Kia Challenge’ fuels St. Pete spike in Kia and Hyundai auto thefts

Since July 11, 23 of the 56 stolen cars have been 2021 and older models of these vehicles.
St. Petersburg police are warning Kia and Hyundai owners to lock their cars after a string of stolen vehicles this month.
St. Petersburg police are warning Kia and Hyundai owners to lock their cars after a string of stolen vehicles this month. [ DAVID ZALUBOWSKI | AP ]
Published July 28, 2022|Updated July 28, 2022

St. Petersburg police have a warning for Kia and Hyundai owners: If you have a particular version of one of these vehicles, be sure to lock the doors.

The warning comes after a rash of stolen vehicles. In the past two and a half weeks, 23 of the 56 stolen cars in St. Petersburg have been 2021 or older Kia and Hyundai vehicles, according to the city police Twitter account.

Sgt. Cody Lance, who investigates auto thefts for the St. Petersburg Police Department, said Kia and Hyundai thefts have risen thanks to a national trend on social media where teens break into these types of cars and film themselves.

“They get, you know, street cred, and a little bit of attention,” he said.

The trend started in Milwaukee, but in recent weeks has come to St. Petersburg, Lance said. Almost all of the suspects locally have been between the ages of 14 and 17.

Kia and Hyundai vehicles have a vulnerability that allows them to be started after the steering column is broken, Lance said.

Viral videos on TikTok and YouTube of the so-called “Kia Challenge” show people using USB cables to start the vehicles, according to a McClatchy news article. In particular, Kia models from 2011 to 2012 and Hyundai models from 2015 to 2021 have vulnerabilities that allow users to bypass the ignition, according to police cited in the article.

Juvenile car thefts have long been an issue that Pinellas County law enforcement has sought to address. A 2017 Tampa Bay Times investigation tracked more than 500 cars stolen by teens and found that in the majority of cases where the method of stealing the car was known, the vehicles had been left unlocked.

Authorities who spoke with the Times said car thefts can be deadly, as inexperienced or even unlicensed drivers seemed to be motivated by a desire to drive recklessly and impress friends, rather than to sell the cars or scavenge for auto parts.

In a phone interview with the Times on Wednesday, Lance said the best way people can protect their cars is to make sure they’re locked. Steering wheel locks can also be used to deter thefts, he said, and parking another vehicle behind your Kia or Hyundai in the driveway can make it more difficult for thieves to steal the cars.

“They look for cars that are unlocked,” he said. “It’s just much easier — it’s just simply a matter of convenience.”