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Hyundai and Kia Reach Tentative Settlement for Vehicle Vulnerability and Thefts

It was a social media trend that car owners dreaded: users were posting videos on TikTok and other platforms teaching viewers how to start a variety of Kia and Hyundai cars with a screwdriver and a USB cable, exploiting a security vulnerability that impacted some models sold in the United States.

Millions of vehicles made between 2011 and 2022 by the two manufacturers lacked engine immobilizers—which prevent the engine from starting unless the key is present. This feature has been largely standard in vehicles since the 1990s. The lack of this left the vehicles too vulnerable to theft, according to lawyers for the companies and vehicle owners.

The high theft rate for these vehicles—2.18 per 1,000 insured vehicle years compared to the combined industry rate of 1.21 per 1,000, according to the Highway Loss Data Institute—made the vehicles difficult to insure and led to 17 U.S. state attorneys general calling for recalls of the affected vehicles, NPR reported. Some U.S. cities saw huge spikes in car thefts in 2022: Los Angeles recorded an 85 percent increase in Hyundai and Kia thefts, and thefts of these two types in Minneapolis jumped 836 percent last year. In the six months after the TikTok videos were posted, thefts of Hyundai and Kia vehicles in Chicago increased by more than 890 percent.

The perpetrators are often minors who drive recklessly—a performance crime, police have called it—and the National Highway and Safety Administration has blamed the trend for at least 14 crashes. At least eight people have died as a result of these thefts, including drivers and bystanders, NBC Chicago reported.

On 18 May, Hyundai Motor America and Kia America reached a settlement to resolve a class-action lawsuit prompted by the thefts. The settlement is estimated to reach $200 million, and it covers 8.3 million vehicles in the United States, the Associated Press reported. The total settlement amount will depend on how many customers choose to participate. The settlement will be reviewed in court for preliminary approval in July 2023.

The settlement will compensate customers who suffered theft-related losses or damage not covered by insurance, and it will reimburse insurance deductibles, increased premiums, and other losses. Affected owners can be reimbursed for up to $6,125 for total loss of vehicles and up to $3,375 for damages, according to NPR. The manufacturers are also offering a software upgrade for affected vehicle owners, and for customers whose vehicles cannot accommodate the upgrade, the manufacturers will reimburse them for up to $300 of anti-theft devices. Kia and Hyundai have also distributed tens of thousands of free steering wheel locks.

Meanwhile, the manufacturers and regulators are racing to keep instructional videos about the crimes off social media. TikTok was not the only platform that was used to distribute the guidance—videos cropped up on YouTube as well. But it’s a game of Whack-A-Mole for content moderators, said Hany Farid, a digital forensics expert at the University of California Berkeley and a former U.S. content advisory council member at TikTok. Content moves quickly between social media platforms, he told reporters, and AI-based content moderation tools are not adept at checking for nuanced behavior demonstrating something illegal versus a clear content violation, such as nudity or violence. This means that content about the thefts is more time-consuming to find and take down, and in that response delay, the content can be copied and spread to other platforms.