It’s safe to assume that 17-year-old Markell Hughes wasn’t too worried about getting caught for stealing cars last year. After all, he lives in Milwaukee, where just 11 percent of reported car thefts resulted in an arrest in 2021 and only 5 percent were prosecuted. But Hughes appeared in a documentary about the so-called “Kia Boys,” who take advantage of an exploit that makes certain Kia and Hyundai models easy to steal. The Kia Boys often joyride around in the stolen cars, usually driving dangerously and usually filming themselves doing it. The documentary was a hit on YouTube, and shortly after it was posted, someone called a police tip line and gave them Hughes’s name.
Among the evidence against Hughes was a call he placed from jail, where he seemed to brag about how many people saw him driving the stolen car.
“I heard my video went viral too,” he said. “I heard my shit hit 50K in one day.”
Teens’ desire to go viral is just one of the factors that has led to an exponential increase in Kia and Hyundai thefts across the country. Starting with model year 2011, Hyundai Motors, which makes Kias and Hyundais, decided not to install a theft prevention mechanism called an immobilizer in certain makes and models. For cars without immobilizers, all thieves have to do is rip off the steering column cover, remove the ignition cylinder, and turn the rectangular nub behind it to start the engine. As it happens, USB plugs fit pretty well over that rectangle. The immobilizer-free Kias and Hyundais could be stolen in a matter of seconds with just a screwdriver and a charging cord.
In 2021, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, reported a significant increase in car thefts, the majority of the cars stolen being Kias and Hyundais, and a lot of the suspected thieves being too young to drive. Videos began to surface on social media of young people joyriding in these cars, speeding and swerving, sometimes hanging out of windows. These were not sophisticated thieves stealing cars to strip and sell for parts. They were doing it for views and clout. They became known as “Kia Boys.”
By the next year, Kia and Hyundai thefts spiked all over the country, as videos showing how to steal the cars spread. A “Kia Challenge” to steal cars and post the results on platforms like TikTok and Instagram spread, too.
Some social media challenges are fun and harmless. Others are mean and dangerous. While Hyundai and Kia scramble to fix the problem with software upgrades and steering wheel lock giveaways, the Kia Challenge is causing financial and physical harm on a mass scale: The numbers of stolen Kia and Hyundais have increased by triple and even quadruple percentages in some areas. Reckless driving of the stolen cars has resulted in injuries and deaths, and the cars have also been used to commit other crimes. Hyundai has already agreed to pay up to $200 million to settle one class action lawsuit, but still faces lawsuits from insurers and cities, with possibly more to come. And thousands of people have had to deal with the enormous inconvenience and expense that comes with their car being stolen. In some cases, their cars were recovered, only to be stolen again. And again.
The US has certain safety regulations that every automobile sold and operated here must follow (with a few exceptions). Those regulations include theft prevention measures, but immobilizers aren’t one of them, which is a departure from many other countries where they are mandated, including Canada. While immobilizers aren’t perfect, they have been shown to cut down on the number of vehicle thefts. They also make it much more expensive to replace your car key if you lose it.
But even without the requirement, almost every automaker has an immobilizer as standard equipment on their cars. If you don’t count Kias and Hyundais, 96 percent of new cars in the US in model year 2015 had immobilizers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. But only 26 percent of Kias and Hyundais did. Hyundai Motors chose not to include immobilizers on some 9 million of its cheaper models sold over the last decade, even as it did install them in cars where it was legally required to do so.
Spokespeople for both brands said their cars are compliant with federal regulations. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) didn’t respond to Vox’s question as to why it doesn’t require immobilizers.
For years, this wasn’t an issue. Kias and Hyundais were not commonly stolen cars. Then the Kia Challenge began.
Social media fuels performance crimes
Social media challenges aren’t new — remember planking? That means that tech companies, like Meta and Google, have had years to figure out how to deal with the potentially harmful trends. And while Kia Challenge videos are showing up on Instagram and YouTube, TikTok is getting most of the blame for spreading it. Even the NHTSA called out TikTok, saying in a February press release that “a TikTok social media challenge has spread nationwide and has resulted in at least 14 reported crashes and eight fatalities.” Kia and Hyundai, which are no doubt happy to have someone else to blame for their production decisions, have also mentioned TikTok by name in statements about the matter.
There are a few reasons for this. Videos showing how to steal the cars are believed to have started or at least become popularized on TikTok. The app is used by a lot of young people who are particularly susceptible to the lure of challenges, and it’s very good at amplifying them.
Trends that kids can try and share have always been one of TikTok’s selling points. That’s fine when the challenge is a fun dance move. This one isn’t of those. If you watch videos of people riding around in their stolen or likely stolen cars, you’ll see they often have their phones out, filming away as they speed, day or night, on vacant streets or crowded ones, seemingly with impunity.
TikTok knows it’s become notorious for deadly challenges. CEO Shou Chew was hammered at a recent congressional hearing with stories of various TikTok challenges kids died trying to complete. The company says it’s tried to remove dangerous challenge content that clearly violates its rules, and videos of people committing crimes like breaking into and stealing cars fall under that category. But the horse is out of the barn at that point.
TikTok also denies that the Kia Challenge is an issue on its platform.
“This isn’t and has not been a TikTok trend, however people are sharing widespread news reports and warnings issued by the companies themselves,” TikTok spokesperson Ben Rathe told Vox. “We do not allow content that promotes theft, and will be removed if found on our platform.”
But there’s also a gray area of problematic content that doesn’t exactly break TikTok’s rules. Videos of people driving Kias dangerously, for example, might get slapped with a “don’t try this at home” warning, but it’s not showing the act of stealing the car, nor is it definitive that the car has been stolen in the first place. Or maybe it’s a video someone took of a Kia being driven dangerously, but there’s no evidence that the person who took and posted the video was involved in its theft (or, again, that it was stolen at all). There is an argument to be made, however, that these videos are glorifying the Kia Boys and the Kia Challenge, and that the hope of going viral is one of the reasons people are doing the challenge at all.
Banning certain hashtags associated with the thefts could prevent some of the bad videos from getting on or staying on the platform, but it would also block a lot of videos that are fine or could even do some good. At this point, there are a lot of videos from victims or warnings to people to protect their Kias and Hyundais, including plenty of media reports. Those may well prevent car thefts.
And, again, this problem is not only on TikTok. Putting evidence of crimes on social media (or committing them for the purpose of putting them on social media) is known as “performance crime,” and the phenomenon predates TikTok. On Instagram, searching another commonly associated hashtag revealed in its top results multiple Reels showing people ripping off steering wheel covers or ignition cylinders, and starting cars with pliers and USB cables, which have been up for over a month with more than 30,000 views each. Meta did not respond to request for comment. And let’s not forget about YouTube, which some anti-crime groups wrote to last January asking the platform to do a better job of finding and removing videos that show how to steal Kias and Hyundais.
“YouTube’s harmful and 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,” said Elena Hernandez, a spokesperson for YouTube, adding that the platform has removed some Kia Challenge videos.
The fallout: Death, destruction, and lawsuits
The Hyundai and Kia thefts are so easy to do and have become so prevalent that some of the stories and statistics are absurd. People’s cars are stolen twice in one day. Some wait months for repairs to their stolen and recovered cars because there’s a back order of parts due to so many stolen cars needing them at the same time. Sixty-one percent of vehicles stolen in St. Louis in the last year are Kias and Hyundais, as are 88 percent of attempted thefts. Kia and Hyundai thefts increased by 767 percent in a year in the Chicago area, and they’re up almost 2,400 percent in Rochester, New York. The top seven out of 10 cars stolen in Wisconsin, where the trend began, in 2021 and 2022 were Kias and Hyundais. In 2020, only the Hyundai Sonata made Wisconsin’s top 10. Insurers are refusing to cover certain Kia and Hyundai models, or jacking up rates.
The damage isn’t just to cars, however. Several teens have died or been seriously hurt by crashing stolen Kias and Hyundais, which officials have attributed to the challenge. There are also crimes committed by people driving the stolen cars. There have been injuries (and in at least one case, possibly a death) to people who were hit by stolen cars. And there’s property damage, like houses that the stolen cars crash into.
Hyundai’s initial response to this was pretty gross, too. It offered Hyundai customers a security kit, for which customers had to pay $170 plus the cost of installation. Kia America reached out to all of its affected customers, and sent owners of affected models steering wheel locks for free. Immobilizers now come standard in all Kias and Hyundais made since November 2021.
In February 2023, Hyundai rolled out a free software update that requires a key to be in the ignition for the car to turn on and lengthens the time the car alarm goes off from 30 seconds to one minute. It now provides a sticker that people can put in their windows to let would-be thieves know they’re wasting their time breaking in, though this assumes thieves are looking out for stickers before they decide to smash windows. Hyundai Motors is also working with police departments across the country to supply free steering wheel locks to affected cars. But you have to know this is going on to take advantage of that, and not everyone reads the news or receives the notices Hyundai has been sending out. And some reports say the update isn’t always effective. Nor is it yet available for all Kia models. Kia denies this.
Multiple cities have now sued Hyundai Motors, most recently New York City. Attorneys general from several states have sent angry letters to Hyundai demanding that it do more to stop the thefts, and sent a letter to the NHTSA urging it to issue a recall on the affected cars. Lawmakers are writing letters, too. Nearly 70 insurers filed a class action lawsuit against Hyundai estimating that they’ll pay out about $600 million over the stolen cars. And Hyundai recently settled one class action suit brought by customers for $200 million.
It’s likely that when all is said and done, this will cost Hyundai more money than it would’ve spent if it had put the immobilizers in the cars in the first place. But it seems the biggest price is, as always, being paid by the victims, and the only lesson for them to learn is to buy from a different automaker (if they can afford it) and hope this one isn’t the subject of the next social media challenge.
Social media platforms, especially TikTok, don’t seem to be able to do much to nip burgeoning dangerous challenges in the bud. Doing so would go against everything their platforms are designed to do. That problem is in no way unique to TikTok, but it seemingly has no easy solution. This one has caused potentially billions of dollars in damage, not to mention the human cost that can never be reimbursed. What will the next challenge cost?
Markell Hughes, the driver in the YouTube documentary, is now 18. He pleaded guilty to one charge of operating a vehicle without the owner’s consent for the scene in that video. He faces up to three and a half years for that and another six years for a separate stolen vehicle case. He’s due to be sentenced this month.
Update, June 8, 4:45 pm ET: This story has been updated to include Kia’s assertion that the software update is now available for all affected models and news of New York City’s lawsuit.