By Elliott Ramos, Brad Edwards
/ CBS Chicago
CHICAGO (CBS) -- Theresa McKinney has a lot of loved ones who depend on her, and her ability to help them has been impacted after her Kia Forte was stolen in October.
Her husband's leg was amputated, and he had to put off physical therapy after the car was stolen. McKinney said the theft also impacted her ability to assist her mother who's suffering from Alzheimer's.
"A lot of people depend on me with this car. It was not just a car for pleasure. I do business there. I helped people with my car," McKinney said. "It's been a nightmare."
McKinney's car was one of about 1,000 Kias stolen in Chicago in October. She eventually got it back, but the damage was done fourfold.
The 58-year-old West Lawn resident lost her job where she counseled those dealing with substance abuse after losing her only means of transportation.
"When you gotta constantly call off, it becomes a bother. And not only that, when you got people that depend on you.... Now you have more stress in your life," McKinney said.
Kias and Hyundais each had about 3,500 car thefts, accounting for nearly 38% of all car thefts in the city. So many Kias were stolen in Chicago, that they account for about 10% of the city's 36,300 registered Kias and about 7% of the city's 53,500 Hyundais, according to data from the Illinois Secretary of State.
That number does not include the 86 Hyundais and 62 Kias swept up in 1,500 carjackings since November of this year, according to police data obtained in a public records request.
Thousands of Kia and Hyundai owners have lost their cars in Chicago and other U.S. cities thanks in part to TikTok videos that show how to exploit a hack on certain models that lack engine immobilizers.
Car thieves, dubbed "Kia boys" by some, are able to break into cars and start them with nothing more than a screwdriver and USB charger.
The city's South and West sides have been especially hit since this summer and this has driven up car thefts in Chicago to its highest level in over a decade, with about 19,000 cars stolen as of last month, according to a CBS 2 analysis of police data.
As of November, car thefts were up 95% from last year because of the Kia and Hyundai thefts, and Chicago is not alone. Motor vehicle theft is up 36% in San Antonio, 27% in Philadelphia, 7% in Los Angeles.
Other Midwestern cities have been hit just as hard.
In Ohio, Kias and Hyundais accounted for 42% of the 8,066 stolen vehicles in Columbus this year, according to data provided by the city attorney, Zach Klein.
Klein threatened suit against Kia and Hyundai last month, alleging that they cut corners.
"The victims of these thefts aren't CEOs and executives, they're teachers and servers, retail workers and nurses—people whose lives have been upended," Klein said in an emailed statement to CBS 2.
The trend held in Missouri, where St. Louis saw a 70% increase in car thefts over last year, according to KSDK. St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones, called on the automakers to recall the cars and install anti-theft devices. When they refused, she also threatened to sue the companies.
When asked if Chicago would pursue similar legal action, a spokesperson for Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot would not comment.
While government lawyers weigh the prospects of suits against the Korean automakers, some lawyers are moving forward with class action suits.
"This is about Hyundai and Kia putting profits over public safety," said Matthew Van Fleet, of MLG Attorneys.
The California firm has brought a class action suit against Kia and Hyundai, and has added several plaintiffs from Chicago.
"It really comes down to them not utilizing technology that's been in the industry since the '90s," Van Fleet said.
The suit alleges that Kia vehicles manufactured from 2011 and 2021 and Hyundai vehicles manufactured from 2015 to 2021 were equipped with traditional key ignitions that were deliberately created without engine immobilizers.
"We expect this to be one of the largest class action lawsuits this nation has ever seen," Van Fleet said.
One of the plaintiffs includes a Chicago woman whose Kia Optima was stolen twice in September – on the same day.
After police found the car damaged, it was taken to a repair shop. The victim, who did not want to be named in this story, got a call from the repair shop later that day, and was informed it was stolen in front of the shop.
The suit also claims that when cars are recovered, the costs for repairing broken windows, steering columns, and other damages commonly exceeds $10,000. The thefts have also created a backlog for replacement parts, leading to repair delays and added costs.
McKinney, who lost her job after having her car stolen, also joined the class-action suit. She said that even after her car was recovered, there were headaches and delays with the repairs.
"The parts were on backorder because so many of them have been stolen. The steering column was on backorder," McKinney said.
She said Kia did not offer her a loaner and wouldn't let her trade it in.
"They offered no kind of help," she said.
Kia and Hyundai, in separate statements, said that they remain concerned about the thefts, but did not say if they would issue a recall, when reached for comment.
"Kia remains concerned about the recent trend among youth in some areas, encouraged by social media, to target certain Kia cars with a steel key and 'turn-to-start' ignition systems," Kia spokesperson James Bell wrote in an emailed statement to CBS 2. "While no car can be made completely theft-proof, Kia continues to make steering wheel locks available to customers through interested local law enforcement agencies, subject to available supply, at no cost to concerned owners of these vehicles."
It's unclear how many of these were provided to Chicago Police, but there have been events where police distributed anti-theft wheel locks.
Hyundai said they were also offering steering locks, and said owners with affected cars could obtain a glass break sensor security kit at Hyundai dealerships and authorized installers.
The company, however, said it would not pay for the $170 kit or the installation.
Both companies said they would seek to address some of the issues with forthcoming software upgrades.
Meanwhile, the impetus to do something grows.
A lot of the stolen cars have started to pop up in other crimes.
A stolen Hyundai burst into flames on Monday after slamming into the back of a truck in Lincoln Square. Police arrested four suspects from that crash, and announced charges on Wednesday that connected them to a string of robberies on the city's northwest side.
The specter of these events overshadow a growing scenario playing out: In the last few months, thousands of individuals in neighborhoods that need greater access to transportation are suddenly without a means to get to work or drive their kids to school.
The rapid loss of transportation has been largely affecting low-income individuals and communities of color.
"I would say that the demographic of our class [action] is lower to middle class individuals, minorities… they make up probably 80 to 85% of our class [action]," said Van Fleet, the lawyer bringing the class action suit against the automakers.
There's data to back that up.
Most of the Kia and Hyundai thefts have been in Chicago's majority-Black neighborhoods, and investigations in 97% of the cases involving those two vehicles have been suspended, according to police data.
That trend holds in other neighborhoods as well – with only 350 car thefts out of the almost 19,000 being cleared and closed this year.
The press conference was welcome news for a police department that sorely needed a victory to show the public that it was making some progress on cases involving armed robberies.
The Chicago Police Department would not comment for this story.
The recent spat of robberies has heightened concerns about violent crime, which is about 1% higher this year over last, but still lower than 2019.
And the sheer amount of car thefts has not helped an overwhelmed and short-staffed department.
The sentiment is felt by McKinney.
"Even now that I got the car back, I don't feel safe in it. It feels like my whole sense of security has been robbed. I've been robbed of my security. And that's awful," she said. "I find myself every so often peeking out the window so I can see if my car is still out there… You aren't supposed to be doing that."
Kia and Hyundai both responded to request for comment. They both provided numbers for customers with questions.
- Kia Consumer Assistance Center: 1-800-333-4542
- Hyundai Customer Care Center: 1-800-633-5151
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