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Kia Challenge

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Internet challenge

The Kia Challenge is a viral TikTok trend to which a series of motor vehicle thefts is attributed, targeting Kia and Hyundai vehicles in the U.S. manufactured between 2011 and 2021. The trend, which began in October 2022, has led to eight fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Until 2011, most Kia vehicles were manufactured with immobilizers—electronic security devices that prevent the engine from being started unless a proper key is inserted—a system present in most Hyundai vehicles until 2016. In Kia Sportage models manufactured in 2010, the immobilizer system comprised a transponder in the ignition key, an antenna coil in the key cylinder, and a SMARTRA unit. Kia vehicles manufactured from 2011 to 2021 and Hyundai vehicles manufactured from 2016 to 2021 that use a steel key, in comparison to a key fob and a push-button start mechanism, lack immobilizers.

In February 2021, Milwaukee, Wisconsin began experiencing an increase in reckless driving and car thefts, particularly cars manufactured by Kia and Hyundai. In response, the Milwaukee Police Department began offering free steering-wheel locks to owners. A Traffic Safety Unit was formed in March. In June, a 16-year-old was killed and five other teenagers were injured following a police pursuit.

The perpetrators of these car thefts remained isolated until a video circulated in August showing an unidentified driver nearly striking pedestrians at John Marshall High School, when some began using hashtags identifying themselves as members of the ‘Kia Boys’ or ‘Kia Boyz.’ Members of the Kia Boyz were depicted in a documentary uploaded to YouTube in May 2022; the video depicts a stolen red 2021 Hyundai Elantra from Hertz. Police identified the driver as 17-year-old Markell Hughes and arrested him in June. In 2023, he was again accused of driving another stolen car.

A video was posted on TikTok on July 12, 2022, where the author uses a USB connector on a naked key slot and successfully starts a car. This vulnerability exists on a type of ignition switch used in many Kia/Hyundai cars sold until 2021, which are not equipped with an immobilizer system. The video was taken down on two weeks later.

In Los Angeles, the trend has been linked to an 85% increase in thefts of Kia and Hyundai vehicles in 2022 compared to 2021. In Chicago, thefts of the affected vehicle models increased by over nine times, and children as young as 11 years of age were reported to have participated in these thefts. On October 23, 2022, six teenagers aged 14 to 19 stole a Kia Sportage in Buffalo, New York. Four of the teenagers were killed when they subsequently crashed the stolen car. The Buffalo Police Department linked the incident to the Kia Challenge.

On December 2, 2023 five teenagers in Lakewood, Washington were driving in a stolen Kia Sportage with at least three guns in their possession. Lakewood police attempted to stop the vehicle after receiving reports that it was stolen, and would later cite the ‘Kia Boyz’ online trend for the crime. One of the occupants, a 16-year-old boy, drowned in a Lakewood swamp while fleeing the police. A 14-year-old and 17-year-old were charged; two others including an adult remain at large.

TikTok has committed to removing pertinent videos uploaded by Kia Challenge thieves from the platform. Kia and Hyundai have both expressed awareness of the increased thefts of their vehicles, with Kia also noting that new vehicles starting with their 2022 model year now come with immobilizers installed. Starting February 14, 2023, Hyundai introduced a free anti-theft software patch for some models of vehicle, and by June 23, all remaining eligible vehicles will have a patch that can be installed at a Hyundai dealership. Some models are unable to be upgraded, and instead customers will be reimbursed for steering wheel locks.

To settle a class-action lawsuit in the United States against Hyundai and Kia, the two brands agreed to pay about US$200 million, of which up to $145 million would offset out-of-pocket losses that car owners had incurred. The settlement was announced on May 18, 2023, and requires approval by a federal judge. However, it was rejected by federal judge James V. Selna.


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