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Car thefts are rising. Is a TikTok challenge to blame?


Chicago, IL

Car thefts started rising last summer in Baltimore, Cleveland, and other cities across the country. In fact, from December 2021 to December 2022, reported thefts[1] rose 50 percent in Atlanta and El Paso, Texas. They doubled in Chicago. They tripled in Dayton, Ohio.

Some cities have blamed the auto manufacturers Kia and Hyundai for the rising thefts. Hyundai has pointed to a “coordinated effort on social media” as the reason for the change.

In June 2022, videos by a group dubbed the “Kia Boys” demonstrating how to start some Kias and Hyundais using a USB charger went viral on TikTok. TikTok has since removed such videos from its platform, but they could still be having an impact on the physical world.

To understand why car thefts rose in 2022 while other types of crime fell[2], USAFacts compiled data from hundreds of police departments[3] and requested more specific data about Kia and Hyundai thefts from over 60 departments nationwide.

Where did the rise in car thefts start?

One of the most-cited car theft videos was filmed in Milwaukee. The city is often viewed as the origin for the nationwide rash of thefts, as it was one of the first to experience a wave of stolen Kias and Hyundais. Thefts rose in November 2020 — nearly 18 months before the videos went viral — and increased throughout 2021.

In 2021, police reported one car stolen for every 50 people, the highest rate in the country among big cities that submitted data to the FBI. By April 2021, 71% of the vehicles reported stolen in Milwaukee were Kias or Hyundais, up from 6% in 2019.


Thefts rose in Denver around the same time.


Milwaukee’s rise in stolen vehicles has been almost entirely Kias and Hyundais, but Denver has had a different problem. There, thefts of Kias, Hyundais and other vehicles doubled from spring to fall 2020.

Car theft rates remain high. Denver reported one stolen vehicle for every 60 residents in 2021, about six times the national average.[4]

Where did Kia and Hyundai thefts surge last summer?

As the Kia Boys videos gained traction in June and July 2022, thefts rose in cities across the country, especially in the Midwest, and northwestern cities including Portland and Seattle.

Kia or Hyundai

Other vehicle

Chicago might be the best example of how quickly thefts have grown. In the first half of 2022, the city had 551 Kias or Hyundais reported stolen. In the second, 6,250 were reported stolen, a tenfold increase.

Higher used car prices, more remote school[5] or reduced law enforcement have all been proposed as sources behind the rising thefts. But, in these cities, the sharp increases in theft over summer 2022 — and the types of cars stolen — are more consistent with the spread of the videos.

Kia and Hyundai thefts did not start to rise in Chicago until summer 2022, almost a year after they peaked in Milwaukee, only 90 miles away.

By December 2022, Kias and Hyundais comprised at least 25% of all stolen cars in 15 of the 23 cities that shared model data with USAFacts.[6]

Where have Kia and Hyundai thefts stayed closer to average?

Kia or Hyundai

Other vehicle

Rising Kia and Hyundai thefts are uneven across the country. Until last summer, Kias and Hyundais were a small percentage of car thefts — less than 10% in most places. By the end of 2022, they accounted for half of the vehicles stolen in several cities, while remaining lower in others.

Percentage of stolen vehicles that were Kias or Hyundais

city Dec 2019 Jun 2022 Oct 2022 Dec 2022
Dayton, OH4%13%58%70%
Cleveland, OHNo data11%55%66%
Buffalo, NYNo data9%50%61%
Chicago, IL7%12%58%55%
Milwaukee, WI7%65%59%53%
Denver, CO9%34%36%41%
Rochester, NY11%20%23%39%
Louisville, KY9%13%36%39%
Washington DCNo data8%18%34%
Saint Paul, MNNo data45%47%34%
Portland, OR2%5%18%34%
Atlanta, GA6%12%35%32%
Seattle, WA4%3%25%31%
Omaha, NE3%10%14%26%
Baltimore, MD7%10%20%25%
Richmond, VA10%3%9%19%
Tucson, AZ6%7%13%14%
San Francisco, CA3%2%4%13%
Albuquerque, NM17%21%14%13%
El Paso, TX13%7%9%9%
Fort Worth, TX6%4%10%8%
San Diego, CA5%8%11%8%
Wichita, KS6%8%11%8%

San Francisco and San Diego had lower shares of Kia and Hyundai thefts than many other cities with data. But California has not been immune from the Kia TikTok challenge. The Los Angeles Police Department issued a community alert in August, saying that Kia and Hyundai accounted for 20% of car thefts, up from 13% in 2021.

Where have motor vehicle thefts risen most?

Data on all car thefts is more regularly reported than thefts of specific models. Police departments are encouraged but not required to report detailed crime data to the FBI. Departments in cities such as New York City and Chicago, which didn't voluntarily report to the FBI in 2021, still publish weekly motor vehicle theft totals on their own websites.

USAFacts gathered car theft data from the websites of the 500 police departments with the most motor vehicle thefts in the last five years. By early March, about a fifth of them had published overall totals for 2022, including some that also reported detailed data to the FBI.

We combined that with data from larger departments the FBI has already published, plus metrics from 10 states that publish statewide data.

Colorado, northern Ohio, and the Pacific Northwest have clusters of increasing thefts. These are all places where Kia and Hyundai thefts jumped last summer.

But if the information in the videos is to blame, it did not blanket the country at once. The spread appears to have been driven by local connections or other factors.

Car thefts rose in Minneapolis but fell in southeastern parts of Minnesota. They rose in Kansas City, but fell in some other parts of Missouri.

These patterns may not persist. Hyundais built after November 2021 and Kias built in 2022 have engine immobilizers, which typically prevent vehicles from starting without a key. Some police departments have distributed wheel locks. The car companies have issued software updates to try to make the cars harder to steal.

But consequences remain. Some insurance companies have stopped issuing new policies for specific Kia and Hyundai models in some areas. And multiple cities have filed lawsuits against the car manufacturers, claiming that they sold vehicles that were easy to steal, threatening public safety and diverting police resources.

Sources & Footnotes