NEW YORK (AP) — Jennifer Neal’s Kia was stolen twice in one day — first outside her Chicago home and later outside the mechanic’s shop where she took it for a fix.
But Neil’s ordeal did not end there. After her car was recovered a month later, she was twice stopped by the police on her way home from work because a police error caused the Optima to remain listed as stolen. The same mistake led to the officers waking her up at 3am the other night. On another occasion, while she was traveling to the Mississippi, a mob of officers stopped her, handcuffed her and put her in the stern of a cruiser for over an hour.
Kia is now sitting in its garage.
“It’s been a few months, but honestly I’m still nervous,” said Neil. “I drive that car maybe once in a blue moon and I loved that car.”
Neil’s story is one of thousands of Kia and Hyundai owners across the country whose vehicles have been stolen or damaged in the past two years.
The sharp rise has been linked to viral videos, posted on TikTok and other social media platforms, teaching people how to start cars using USB cables and exploiting a vulnerability in some models sold in the US without engine mounts, a standard feature on most cars since the 1990s. Prevents the engine from starting unless the key is present.
But unlike some social media-driven trends that seem to disappear once the police get a grip on them, car thefts have continued. Hyundai has tried to work with TikTok and other platforms to remove the videos, but as new waves of thefts emerge, demonstrating the continuing effects of dangerous content gaining traction with teens. Find ways to spread virally.
It is a phenomenon known as performance offense. Police departments in a dozen cities said this was a factor in the increase they saw in juveniles arrested or accused of carjacking. However, criminology experts warn that the role teens play in the rise in theft — which began during the pandemic and is not limited to Kia and Hyundai — may be artificially exaggerated because teens inexperienced in crime are more likely to be caught.
Attorneys general from 17 states He called on federal regulators to issue a mandatory recall, arguing voluntary software reforms Issued by companies is not enough. Multiple cities including Baltimore, Milwaukee and New York have filed or announced plans to join legal action against the automakers, which also face class and civil lawsuits from consumers like Neal. One such lawsuit was settled for nearly $200 million last week.
The National Highway and Safety Administration blames the trend for at least 14 crashes and eight deaths, but attorneys suing the automakers say the number is likely much higher.
Morgan Kornfind was driving to a yoga class in Portland, Oregon, at the end of March when a man in a stolen Kia pulled into it while he was driving the wrong way while fleeing police. The 25-year-old woman sustained injuries, broken bones and severe injuries to her leg. She needed surgery and attends several medical appointments each week.
“I am unable to work at my job that I love most. I am unable to do yoga or walk my dogs. I have missed outings planned with friends due to my ongoing rehabilitation. The thought of driving again is causing me great distress,” she wrote in a statement.
Earlier this month in Milwaukee, a stolen Kia hit a school bus, leaving a 15-year-old who was hanging from a window in critical condition. Police later arrested four 14-year-olds, one of whom was said to be driving.
Numerous calls for accountability have been leveled at automakers. MLG Attorneys at Law, a California law firm that specializes in auto defect litigation, has received more than 4,000 inquiries from victims like Kornfeind.
“And the amazing thing is, it’s not slowing down,” said Randy Shrewsbury, MLG’s chief strategy officer.
But some police departments, victims and automakers are also pointing fingers at social media platforms. Videos posted to YouTube in recent weeks show people breaking into various cars or using a USB cable to hot-wire cars. The company removed the videos when it notified the Associated Press.
Company spokeswoman Elena Hernandez said in a statement that YouTube has removed videos depicting what is known as the “Kia Challenge” in recent months, while stressing that the company considers context when making those decisions.
“We may allow some videos if they are intended to be educational, documentary, scientific, or artistic,” Hernandez wrote.
In a statement, a TikTok spokesperson rejected assertions that many of the serious challenges mentioned in news reports have reached significant popularity on the platform.
“There is no evidence that any of these challenges ever ‘trended’ on TikTok, and there is a clear documented history that many challenges falsely associated with TikTok predate the entire platform,” said TikTok spokesperson Ben Rathi.
Hany Farid, who resigned in January from TikTok’s content advisory board in the US because he felt unable to influence change, said TikTok tends to be defensive when criticized for its content moderation practices. And he acknowledged the challenge of figuring out where some trends are coming from because content moves quickly between platforms.
“It’s very much a Whack-A-Mole problem,” said Fred, a digital forensics expert at the University of California, Berkeley. “Because these platforms are not designed to be safe for children or anyone.”
TikTok’s app report for the last three months of 2022 showed that 5% of videos removed by the company were due to serious actions and challenges, with 82% removed within 24 hours.
Like many social platforms, TikTok screens content with a mixture of AI and human moderators trying to spot anything the AI might be missing. A spokesperson said it’s easier for technology to spot certain violations, like nudity, than things like teen car break-ins. Human moderators are the second level of screening when content is suspicious.
Users sometimes sabotage the platform’s controls by misspelling or changing words in hashtags. Some see this as a loophole that deserves attention. TikTok says it watches for typos and describes content that has been forced away from mainstream hashtags as a success.
Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, did not respond to a request for comment on how it viewed similar videos.
While the Kia challenge is the crime trend on social media right now, it’s not the first. Experts say it does not indicate that social media is creating a paradigm shift in criminal activity.
In LaGrange, Georgia, a city of about 31,000 people near the Alabama border, before the Kia Challenge, police dealt with the fallout from the “Orbeez Challenge,” which instructed people to use plastic toys or guns to launch small jelly-filled balls called Orbeez at strangers or friends. Lt. Mark Cavender said officers became alarmed when they saw middle school students using toy guns painted black to look like real weapons, and immediately issued warnings to stop.
Social media hasn’t completely changed crime, said Michael Scott, director of the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing at Arizona State University.
“Social media seems to be a radically new thing, but the only new things are speed and breadth,” Scott said.
There are also plenty of examples of trends in criminal activity that were prevalent before social media existed as they are now. Before there were “burglaries” there were “barbarians” in the 1980s, where groups of people gathered openly to wreak havoc, vandalize or steal property. And before the Kia Challenge, there were groups of teens in the ’90s who figured out they could steal General Motors cars with a screwdriver.
Scott, who was an officer with the St. Louis Police Department at the time, said the automaker was slow to act when officers noticed an uptick in their cars being stolen.
“Even without social media, this technology has spread across the country,” he said. “What social media has changed, is that it has speeded up the process. Before, you had to know or meet someone who figured out that all you need is a screwdriver.”
Lauer reported from Philadelphia.
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