Milwaukee car thieves are crazy for Hyundais and Kias


The city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is another metro area dealing with rising crime rates, car theft in particular having become another epidemic. Thieves stole 4,254 vehicles in Milwaukee last 2020, a figure that was 29% up on the number of thefts in 2019. The reversal countered a trend of declining grand theft auto in the city since 2015. As various outlets have reported, from the beginning of this year until October 18, 8,432 car owners had their rides stolen, a supercharged boost of nearly 172%. Over the summer, the increase over last year had been even higher, at 192%. The city’s prior high was nearly 8,500 car thefts in 2006; this year is on pace to break 10,000 stolen cars.

Within those figures, sometime last fall, local police noticed car thieves beginning to focus on 2011-or-newer Kia models and 2015-or-newer Hyundai models, the two brands having become a particular specialty since. One report saying Hyundai thefts were up by 1,715%, Kia thefts up 3,183%, both brands making up two-thirds of total thefts. No one is sure why, though; Denver is the only other city in the country where the South Korean brands have become low hanging fruit.

What’s known is that the vehicles don’t have an engine immobilizer, and breaking in through a rear window doesn’t trip an alarm. Once thieves get the glass out of the way, they peel back the steering column cover and start the car with a tool like pliers or, in some cases, a USB cable. Sometimes the same car gets stolen more than once, or police have seen some sold for as little as $25. A local shop said it would stop repairing stolen Hyundais and Kias because it can’t get the steering columns anymore, and it doesn’t want the cars sitting on its lot ripe for getting stolen again.

Authorities say this crime wave is being driven by kids, one police department saying half of the suspects “are 16 and under.” As for the root causes there, everything has been blamed — kids being out of school and bored, social media, “Grand Theft Auto” video games, the juvenile detention system, and parents. 

The city desperately wants to get things under control while it tries to figure out what to do about deeper issues. Hyundai and Kia have said their vehicles meet or exceed all federal standards, and that their products would come standard with engine immobilizers from the 2022 model year. The carmakers have also been distributing steering-wheel locks to any owners that live, work, or go to school in the city of Milwaukee. 

Frustrated owners banded together and retained Milwaukee law firm Barton Legal to file a class action suit against the South Korean automakers alleging “subpar security measures, thereby making them incredibly easy to steal.” The City Attorney is considering its own suit against Hyundai and Kia under public nuisance laws. Deputy City Attorney Yolanda McGowan said, “We looked at a number of potential causes of action. We have not joined any lawsuits at this point,” but the office is preparing a report for local politicians on the pros and cons of a case.

Hyundai said owners of its products in the area with questions can call the Milwaukee Police Department about getting a lock, or call Hyundai

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