Kia and Hyundai cars targeted for theft after hack goes viral

With a simple USB cord and a YouTube tutorial, you can steal a car in 30 seconds

Today's expression: Cut corners
Explore more: Lesson #580
June 12, 2023:

Thefts of Kia and Hyundai cars have plagued American cities after TikTok and YouTube videos showed just how easy it is to steal them. Certain models sold in the U.S. can be stolen in just 30 seconds with a USB cord--and nothing else. It can be traced to one fateful decision by the carmakers. Plus, learn the English expression "cut corners."

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A popular TikTok challenge results in thousands of stolen cars

Lesson summary

Hi there everyone, I’m Jeff and this is Plain English, where we help you upgrade your English with current events and trending topics. This is lesson 580 of Plain English, so that means JR has uploaded the full and complete lesson to PlainEnglish.com/580.

Coming up today: You can steal a car in 20 seconds using just a single piece of equipment. You just need one common household item and you need to know which car to target. The good news for you—if you’re a car thief—is that this is a viral sensation on TikTok and YouTube. It’s easy to learn how to do it. This has police chiefs pleading for carmakers to do something about the problem.

In the second half of the lesson—you might be able to guess where this is going—we’ll talk about the expression “cut corners.” And we have a quote of the week from a pop star who died last month. Let’s dive in.

Kia and Hyundai cars targeted for theft

Kia and Hyundai are two Korean carmakers known for being a good value. Kia was founded in 1944 as a maker of steel tubes and bicycle parts. Hyundai started as a construction company in 1947. They started making cars in the late 1960s and early 1970s .

By the 1980s, they were exporting cars around the world. In North America, the two brands gained a reputation for being economical. That’s a polite way of saying, “cheap.” American cars were big, top-of-the-line. Japanese cars were small, fuel-efficient, and reliable. German and Italian cars were luxurious. And Korean cars Kia and Hyundai were cheap.

But cheap didn’t mean bad. Consumers liked them. Television commercials advertised that you could get two Hyundais for the price of just one new domestic car. Or, you could buy a new Hyundai for the price of a used American brand.

Over the years , the two brands moved upmarket, improving their quality. But they still retained their value character. Making a car is a complex process of give-and-take , where the carmakers decide where to spend their budget: engineering, appearance, interiors, appointments, features, upgrades, technology, things like that.

German carmakers focus on design and performance, Volvo on safety, Subaru on four-wheel drive for the outdoors, Tesla on technology, and so on . Hyundai and Kia priced their vehicles low and focused their budget on things consumers could touch and feel—interiors, for example.

That meant cutting corners in other parts of the vehicle. And many Hyundai and Kia vehicles sold in the U.S. did not include a basic piece of technology that’s standard or required in almost all vehicles—and indeed it’s required in many countries. It’s called an engine immobilizer.

An engine immobilizer prevents a car from starting if its key is not close to the ignition. This is to prevent car theft, like in old movies where car thieves can just start a car without a key. But cars today have two chips that prevent that: one chip in the ignition, one chip in the key. If the ignition doesn’t detect the key close by, then the car doesn’t start.

If your car has a push-button start, this is the technology at work. But even if your car requires a physical key to start, it probably still has the engine immobilizer.

A lot of Hyundai and Kia cars sold in the U.S. did not have this technology. And to make matters worse, the cars had a shocking vulnerability: if you take a panel off the steering column, you can force the car to start if you have just one piece of specialized equipment.

That piece of equipment is a USB cable.

That means for a couple of dollars, you can have all the equipment you need to steal certain Hyundai and Kia cars from model years 2011 to 2022.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin is a medium-sized American city in the Midwest. Police in Milwaukee started noticing an increase in thefts of Kias and Hyundais around the beginning of the pandemic. Shortly thereafter, a video popped up on TikTok, showing exactly how to steal a car in this way.

All you have to do is break the window of a car, jump in through the window, rip off a plastic panel on the steering column, force a USB cable into a certain part, and turn the cable like you would a key. The whole thing can be done in 20 seconds, if you have practice, which a lot of people do.

It gets worse. The TikTok videos showed people driving stolen Hyundai and Kia cars recklessly, on sidewalks, crashing into highway dividers, hitting other cars, speeding, crossing dividing lines—all with passengers hanging out the windows. It inspired copycats and now almost every big city in the United States is dealing with a rash of Kia and Hyundai thefts, and of Kia and Hyundai joyriding after.

Some car owners have had their own cars stolen two, even three times in just a year. One car thief in Chicago was just eleven years old—he was one of the most prolific car thieves in the whole region, says the local sheriff.

Many cities are seeing an eye-popping increase in car thefts. Seattle says the number of Kia and Hyundai vehicle thefts increased over 400 percent from 2021 to 2022; in Minneapolis, they were up a staggering 836 percent. In some cities, Kias and Hyundais represent over half of all stolen vehicles; the brands combined have only about a ten percent market share. In Milwaukee, where it all started, over 6,000 Hyundai and Kia cars were stolen in just one year—that’s more than one for every one hundred residents in the city.

Coming up on Thursday: the fallout. This crime spree is not just about stolen cars. It has a much wider impact.

Just a U.S. problem

An engine immobilizer has been mandatory in all cars sold in the European Union since 1998. 1998! So if you’re in Europe, and you drive a Hyundai or a Kia, you don’t have to worry about this problem. Same with Canada and Australia. I also looked for news about these two brands in South Korea, in Mexico, and in a few other countries and I didn’t see any news about thefts there. So this appears to be a U.S. problem.

The one thing I was curious about—thieves use a USB cable in the steering column. So I wondered, why would Kia and Hyundai put a USB port in the steering column? They didn’t. You don’t plug the USB cable into a USB port. But part that you rotate is the same shape and size as a USB port. So the thieves just jam the cable in there and turn it like a key. Yikes.

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Expression: Cut corners