Crime, Law and Justice

Ellison investigates Kia, Hyundai amid spate of social media-inspired thefts

A man looks past the camera and talks to a crowd
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, right, announces an investigation into the automakers Kia and Hyundai at a state Capitol news conference on Tueday, alongside city leaders including Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Updated March 8, 2023 at 11:35 a.m.

Amid a large spike in thefts of Kia and Hyundai vehicles, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison on Tuesday announced that he’s investigating the automakers to determine if they ran afoul of state consumer protection and public nuisance laws by not including industry-standard anti-theft technology in their cars and SUVs.

Many Kia and Hyundai vehicles do not have electronic immobilizers, even though the technology has been standard for about two decades. The technology prevents a vehicle from starting if the code programmed into a microchip embedded into the key doesn’t match the code in the onboard computer. 

While many of the vulnerable vehicles have been on the road for more than a decade, authorities say thieves began targeting them in large numbers in 2022 after social media videos provided step-by-step instructions for starting them without a key.

In the Twin Cities, 3,293 Kias and Hyundais were reported stolen in 2022, a nearly nine-fold increase over 2021. In Minneapolis, the two makes account for 40 percent of all vehicle thefts.

At a news conference with Ellison at the Minnesota Capitol, St. Paul Police Chief Axel Henry said there are 20 stolen each week in his city, and they’re often used in much more serious crimes.

“It’s gotten way worse, and it is tied to all types of violent crimes. Two weeks ago, we had a drive-by shooting with one of these vehicles, crashed into an innocent family that was unloading their groceries,” Henry said.

On Friday, a driver allegedly evading a state trooper crashed a stolen Kia through a fence on an Interstate 94 overpass in north Minneapolis and landed on the embankment below. The Minnesota State Patrol said police arrested two juveniles near the scene of the crash; neither suffered major injuries.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said authorities are arresting and prosecuting the thieves, but preventing the thefts in the first place would help free up thin law enforcement resources.  

“We don’t need to just wait until after the crime has taken place to protect people’s lives,” Frey said. “We can do it ahead of time. One of the ways we can keep people safe ahead of time is making sure that the kind of anti-theft devices that are in pretty much every single other automobile make and manufacturer out there are also in Kias and Hyundais.”

Cities including Seattle and Columbus have sued the automakers. Ellison’s action stops short of a lawsuit, but he said that he hasn’t ruled one out.

“We’re going to investigate as much as we need to, and then we’re going to take the appropriate action,” Ellison said. “We like to know what we’re talking about and we think there’s information that the company may have that can assist us in proving our case, which they are legally bound to give us.”

The investigation comes nearly a week after Ellison, Frey and St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter sent a letter to the companies asking that they recall and upgrade vehicles that lack electronic immobilizers. 

Ian Evans, 32, of St. Paul appeared at the news conference and said that a thief stole his 2013 Kia Rio just before Christmas. Police recovered it about a day later, but Evans said it took nearly two months to get it fixed because there were many other victims ahead of him.

A man stands next to a car
Ian Evans of St. Paul said it took two months to get his Kia Rio repaired after it was stolen from his garage in December 2022. Evans spoke to reporters on Tuesday outside the Minnesota Capitol after he appeared at a news conference with Attorney General Keith Ellison.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

“The window needed to be fixed, the steering column needed to be replaced, and the locks had to be changed,” Evans said. “I was in a line of Kias at the repair shop to be fixed.”

When he parks his car, Evans said he puts a lock across the steering wheel and breathes “a sigh of relief” each time he returns to find the vehicle intact.

A Hyundai spokesperson said in an email Tuesday that all of the company’s vehicles meet federal anti-theft requirements. A company news release from February said every vehicle manufactured since November of 2021 includes an electronic immobilizer as standard equipment. 

The news release added that Hyundai is offering free software upgrades that activate an engine kill feature that can only be de-activated with the owner’s remote key fob. However, some 2011-2022 model year vehicles cannot accommodate the patch, so Hyundai plans to offer those owners free steering wheel locks. 

In a similar statement sent to MPR News Wednesday morning, Kia said it is also rolling out “a free, enhanced security software upgrade” and is providing free steering wheel locks through local law enforcement agencies, including “nearly 300 to departments in the Minneapolis/St. Paul region as requested.”

Kia’s statement adds that “because there is no defect in the security features” of its vehicles, “a recall is neither appropriate nor necessary under federal law.”

The issue has also garnered the attention of state lawmakers. A House bill filed last month would require all automakers to install immobilizers on any vehicle manufactured in the last decade that does not have one. 

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