The Kia Boy Crime Wave
kids are stealing cars in historic numbers, bragging about it online, and taunting their victims. the police are basically helpless.
A staggering wave of grand theft auto has swept the nation, and journalists — when they aren’t laughing — are either blaming TikTok or the auto manufacturers. But there is another possible, if somewhat controversial reading of the situation: what if the people responsible for the car thefts were… the people stealing cars? And what if our cops were powerless to stop them?
In his full-time Pirate Wires debut, Nick Russo reports from the frontline of reality.
You’d be hard-pressed to design a car simpler to steal than a manual ignition Kia, manufactured between 2011 to 2021, or Hyundai, manufactured between 2015-2021. Smash the rear window, pry off the steering column, stick a USB cable into the ignition slot, turn, and floor it. The rear windows aren’t hooked up to the alarm system, and the ignition system lacks an engine immobilizer, a fairly standard security feature. Hotwiring these cars is, quite literally, child’s play.
The process is so simple, in fact, it can be done in under a minute, filmed with a smartphone, communicated to the world in the form of a TikTok tutorial, and followed up with clout-chasing POVs of the post-hotwire joyride. This is precisely what’s been happening across the United States — first in Milwaukee, and then, as if all at once, everywhere.
Chances are, if you live in even a minor American city, at least a few kids nearby have started calling themselves “Kia Boys,” stealing cars for after school joyrides, and boasting about their exploits on social media. They tend to be in their mid-to-late teenage years, but some are as young as 10. They learned on TikTok how easy it was to hotwire certain Kias and Hyundais, knew intuitively how fun joyriding would be, and saw how much clout the original Milwaukee Kia Boys accrued. Then, crucially, they knew from firsthand experience or secondhand accounts that the odds of facing serious legal consequences for stealing cars were, at best, underwhelming.
Social media, corporate cost-cutting, and a weak criminal justice system have coalesced into the perfect twenty-first century cultural Molotov cocktail. The Milwaukee Kia Boys lit the fuse, and an explosion of car thefts swept the nation.
Kia Boys, Quantified
In 2020, 4,507 stolen cars were reported in Milwaukee, giving it the 66th highest rate of motor vehicle theft among American cities. In 2021, the city surged to eighth on the list, as stolen car reports more than doubled, reaching a staggering 10,477. Two-thirds of the cars stolen in 2021 were Kias or Hyundais, despite the two companies accounting for just 7% of all cars owned in America. And Milwaukee is only the tip of the iceberg.
In 2022, Los Angeles saw an 85% spike in thefts of Kia and Hyundai vehicles. In St. Petersburg, Florida, more than a third of all car thefts last summer were linked explicitly to inspiration from TikTok videos. In Chicago, some jurisdictions saw month-to-month spikes in Kia and Hyundai thefts of over 800%. In November 2022, Atlanta Police reported that 40% of all car thefts in the city that year were of Kias and Hyundais. Kia Boys have popped up in Buffalo, Dallas, several cities in Ohio, St. Louis, Seattle, Memphis, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Antonio, the DMV area (DC-Maryland-Virginia), and Kent County, Michigan. The volume of local news reports on Kia and Hyundai thefts is seemingly infinite.
Police departments and car manufacturers have started distributing steering wheel clubs to deter thefts. Families whose cars have been stolen multiple times have had their insurance dropped. Progressive and State Farm have stopped insuring affected Kia and Hyundai models altogether. By last September, the list of Kia Boy victims had grown so long that a national class action lawsuit was filed against Kia and Hyundai, alleging liability for the cars’ lack of engine immobilizers. TikTok has slapped safety warnings on most Kia Boy videos. A Maryland Congressman recently asked TikTok to take down all remaining hotwiring tutorials. Criminal defense firms are recruiting clients with familiar language: “if you or a loved one has been arrested in connection with the car theft TikTok trend, call us today for a free consultation…”
A safety for the Philadelphia Eagles had his Kia stolen during a playoff game. An undercover cop using a Kia had his car stolen in New York City. A Fox News camera crew in Wisconsin had its rental car window smashed in a botched theft attempt that took place across the street from an ongoing gubernatorial campaign press conference.
The death count from stolen vehicle crashes is rising. Four teens in Buffalo, one in Columbus, one in Alton, Illinois, a 71-year-old man in Robbins, Illinois. Several teenagers have been shot and killed while driving, or by drivers of, stolen Kias and Hyundais. A St. Louis woman tracked down her stolen Hyundai and killed two people in a shootout.
Suffice it to say, shit’s gotten out of hand.
Or has it?
Since we’re living in post-2020 America, I do think we’re obliged to pause here, and ask: does any of this really matter? Should we all just take a page from Seth Rogen’s book, choose not to view our cars as extensions of ourselves, and accept this kind of crime as the cost of city living?
Is it somehow wrong to insist that children stealing cars is a problem, actually?
An interesting perspective, but the many lower-to-middle class victims who’ve been economically crippled by Kia Boy thefts tend to come at this subject from a different angle than millionaire celebrity actors. As do the Kia Boy parents who, having higher hopes for their children than a life of crime, are publicly begging law enforcement to step up and hold them accountable. And as does the president of the NAACP’s Columbus Chapter — that notoriously tough-on-crime organization — who has asserted “we can no longer have our children just running rampant in our community committing crimes, it’s got to stop.”
Unsurprisingly, beyond the insulated world of the wealthy, the basic tenets of working class solidarity, child-rearing, and community stewardship dictate we should not accept a wave of juvenile car theft as a mundane fixture of American life. The question is what to do about it. Lucky for us, the media is on it.