Car thieves targeting Kia and Hyundai vehicles have put the city of Milwaukee, Wis., on alert, prompting the police department, rental car companies and even a local brewery to warn drivers that they may be susceptible.
Sgt. Efrain Cornejo says the Milwaukee Police Department really started to notice a trend in November 2020 where car thieves would break a window and be able to drive off within minutes.
"During that time we actually made contact with the manufacturers and what we were able to find out through them is that the vehicles that were being affected were vehicles that were not equipped with engine immobilizers," Cornejo said.
Engine immobilizers use electronic signals to prevent cars from being hot-wired. Most cars sold in the last 20 years have them. But many Kias and Hyundais produced before mid-2021 don't, and thieves in Milwaukee have taken notice.
Thefts of Kias and Hyundais really exploded in 2021. That year MPD saw 3,557 Kias and 3,406 Hyundais stolen compared to 469 Kias and 426 Hyundais in 2020.
The Milwaukee-Waukesha area was in the top 10 cities in the U.S. for per capita car thefts in 2021. To try and deter more thefts, MPD partnered with car manufacturers, local businesses and community organizations to pass out steering wheel locks like the Club to help deter criminals.
Businesses are getting the word out in Milwaukee
Some businesses, like Lakefront Brewery, are trying to get the word out to customers before they sit down for a drink. The brewery located in the Brewer's Hill neighborhood of the city has a sign out front that says "NOTICE: Please mention if you drive a KIA or HYUNDAI vehicle to the Host."
Dylan Mazurkiewicz of Lakefront Brewery says they put out the sign to "notify our patrons when a couple [thefts] happened in our area and people were calling us or coming in pretty upset."
"It sucks. It's traumatic for some of these people. Somebody even had a bunch of luggage in their car and ... they're on their way to the airport," he said. "It seemed like worst-case scenarios."
Mazurkiewicz said that in addition to telling people about the situation and how fast the cars can be stolen, the brewery also does its best to have them park their cars in areas where there are cameras, close the building or near the patio where there are more people around. The brewery also lends out steering wheel locks.
Even car rental companies are trying to make more drivers aware by putting tags on the key rings telling drivers not to park in Milwaukee County. A post on Reddit set off a flurry of comments, including some from those who have had their cars stolen or know someone who has.
"Friend had her car stolen. Insurance got her a rental while she waited for the new car to come in to the dealer. Rental got stolen. Then her new car got stolen off the lot before she was able to pick it up," user TheCookie_Momster wrote.
Cornejo said that year-to-date, the Milwaukee Police Department has seen a 19% decrease in thefts of Kia and Hyundai vehicles from the high numbers it saw last year.
Overall, there are a number of precautions people can take to help prevent car theft. Steering wheel locks are one, but Cornejo says that tire locks — or boots — are also becoming more common.
Investing in a kill switch for your car could might also be good. And as the weather gets colder, Cornejo recommends not leaving your car unattended while it's heating up.
As for Hyundai, a larger fix appears to be on the horizon. The company told NPR that though immobilizers became standard on cars produced after Nov. 1, 2021, it plans to sell a security kit "that targets the method of entry thieves are using to access these vehicles" starting Oct. 1.
Kia tells NPR it plans to continue partnerships with local law enforcement to hand out steering wheel locks in multiple cities.