By Megan Sayles and Tashi McQueen,
AFRO Staff Writers,
msayles@afro.com,
tmcqueen@afro.com

Despite a 23 percent decrease in Baltimore City carjackings from 2022 to 2023, the city is currently confronting a 227 percent increase in auto thefts. This trend is not exclusive to Baltimore. Cities across the United States have been facing a rise in auto thefts, spurred by a viral TikTok challenge promoting the stealing of Kia and Hyundai vehicles. 

Mayor Brandon Scott and Baltimore Police Commissioner Richard Worley gathered at the city’s impound lot in Northeast Baltimore on Nov. 6  to address how they’re combatting the stolen vehicle epidemic. 

A few days later, the Baltimore City Council Public Safety and Government Operations committee brought several city and state agencies for a hearing on auto thefts. 

“We are grappling with this increase in our city as a part of a nationwide increase in car thefts driven largely by the theft of certain Kia and Hyundai models and the proliferation of online videos demonstrating how to steal these vehicles with simply a USB,” said Scott. “In fact, Kia and Hyundai models make up over 68 percent of the vehicles stolen in Baltimore City. This is an issue that our counterparts in Baltimore County and Howard County and jurisdictions across the country, like Washington, D.C. and others are also contending with.” 

According to the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer, in 2022, there were 721,852 motor vehicle thefts in the U.S. compared to 601,453 in 2021. 

The “Kia Challenge,” as it was coined, gained popularity in 2022. Individuals had discovered that certain Hyundai and Kia vehicles lacked immobilizers, which prevent a car from starting if an improper key or key fob is used. 

At that time, Scott said he developed a multi-pronged strategy of prevention, deterrence, enforcement and legal action against manufacturers to address the growing thefts. In May 2023, the city of Baltimore sued Hyundai and Kia for their failure to produce vehicles with the industry-standard, anti-theft mechanism. 

“Numerous cities throughout the country have also filed suit because the origin of this spike is very crystal and clear,” said Scott. “Not only should these companies be held accountable for their failure in providing a secure product, but they must answer to the thousands of their customers and our residents who have been so thoroughly impacted by this spike.” 

The car companies also faced a class action lawsuit from theft victims across the nation. The $200 million settlement, which would cover more than 9 million drivers, received preliminary court approval on Nov. 1. 

According to Hagens Berman, the law firm representing the class, theft victims could receive compensation of up to 60 percent of the Black Book value of their vehicles if the settlement is approved. Those that experienced damage due to an attempted theft could receive up to 33 percent of the Black Book value or $3,375, whichever is greater. 

Young people across the country have been particularly attracted to the challenge and typically steal the cars for a joyride. According to Scott, out of 692 arrests made in conjunction with stolen vehicles, more than 250 were minors. 

“Auto theft committed by juveniles is up 166 percent this calendar year as of the first of November. As a part of our broader discussions around youth-involved violence and property crime, we understand that to be so,” said Scott. “We have been arresting and re-arresting the same individuals who have repeatedly engaged in this behavior.” 

Worley and Scott said 30 Baltimore City youth have been arrested on multiple occasions for carjacking and auto theft. 

To curb thieves, the Baltimore City Police Department (BPD) has already distributed over 3,000 steering wheel locks to residents and planned to issue more on Nov. 11 at Northwood Elementary School from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Nov. 15 at Hollinswood Shopping Center from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. 

Following the events, additional steering wheel locks will be available at local police districts, while supplies last. 

BPD is also collaborating with Kia and Hyundai to host system upgrade clinics for anti-theft updates that can hamper criminals. On Nov. 10-12 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., BPD and Kia held one of these clinics in Hanover, Md. 

Worley reported that BPD’s current recovery rate for stolen vehicles was 60 percent. 

“As the season starts to get colder, please don’t let your vehicle run to let it warm up because they’ll basically steal the vehicle. Also, make sure your vehicle is locked and get a wheel lock,” said Worley. “Make sure that you park in lighted areas if you can. Check on your vehicle occasionally, and if you have an alarm, make sure it’s set.” 

At the auto theft hearing, City Councilman Zeke Cohen (D-District 1) acknowledged the mayor’s attempts to address the auto theft issue.

“I’m grateful to our partners in the administration for convening to prioritize these issues,” said Cohen. “I look forward to ongoing collaboration with all of our agencies — local, state, federal partners and most importantly, our residents. The time to collectively solve these challenges and move Baltimore forward is now.”

A focal point of the hearing for council members and attendees was youth involvement in auto thefts, what’s being done to track the individuals that steal and prevent them from doing it again.

Baltimoreans can expect the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services (DJS) to bring personnel back, 24/7, into their Baltimore City intake office on Nov. 15.

“We do have staff that are there during the week, doing 24/7 operation,” said Lisa Garry, deputy secretary of community services of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services. “However, those who are making or approving decisions are supervisors and those are the ones being brought back into the space.”

Desiree Clary, resident of Canton, spoke of her concerns with auto theft as a mother and resident.

“My biggest fear is being carjacked with my children in the car,” said Clary in tears at the hearing. “When the youth surround my car what am I supposed to do? I can’t fight back. What if they shoot me? What if they hurt me? What are my children supposed to do? We need to stop this and hold these kids accountable.”

Megan Sayles and Tashi McQueen are Report for America corps members.