TikTok trend may be to blame for increasing car thefts in St. Pete, police say

St. Petersburg police are seeing a spike in car thefts and an alarming new social media trend might be to blame, detectives said Thursday.

The issue began last year in Milwaukee when a group of car thieves figured out how to hotwire Kias and Hyundais using a cell phone charger; they can do it without using car keys or fobs.

"They're finding a way to bypass the ignition of the car through the steering column and it's not sophisticated. It's a mechanical hack," said St. Petersburg Detective Cody Lance.

The criminals posted videos on TikTok and YouTube and it eventually became known as the "Kia challenge." The trend began spreading, with law enforcement agencies across the country seeing a rise in car thefts targeting Kias and Hyundais.

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Since July 11, there have been 56 cars stolen in St. Pete and nearly half are Kias and Hyundais.

TikTok Kia Challenge on social media

"It's quite alarming. Our numbers have gone up significantly and it's got our attention," stated Lance. "They're looking for three things: they're looking for a ride, they're looking for money and they're looking for a gun. They get those three things, they eventually get arrested and then the cycle continues all over again."

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The damage can be expensive. It's costing Harmon Handy, who had his Kia Sorrento stolen this month, $7,500 and he doesn't know when he'll get his car back from the repair shop.

"[I] thought you needed that key fob to start it and apparently you don't," Handy said. "The most frustrating part about it is just how pointless it is, that the only reason to do it is just to grab the car and trash it."

Blue Kia in the sun

Police, meanwhile, are urging Kia and Hyundai owners to consider purchasing wheel locks for their vehicles.

Kia and Hyundai spokespersons told Car and Driver Magazine that, beginning with the 2022 models, the companies have fixed the issues that allowed thieves to steal cars this way.