The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)
TikTok trends thrust performance crimes into the U.S. spotlight
NEW YORK — Jonnifer Neal’s Kia was stolen twice in one day — first from in front of her Chicago home and later from outside the mechanic shop where she took it to get fixed.
But Neal’s ordeal didn’t end there. After her car was recovered a month later, she was stopped by police twice coming home from work because a police error caused the Optima to remain listed as stolen. The same error resulted in officers waking her up at 3 a.m. another night. On yet another occasion, a swarm of officers pulled her over as she was traveling to Mississippi,
handcuffing and placing her in the back of a cruiser for more than an hour.
“It’s been a few months, but honestly I’m still nervous,” Neal said. “I drive that car maybe once in a blue moon and I loved that car.”
Neal’s story is one of thousands from Kia and Hyundai owners across the country whose cars were stolen or damaged in the past two years.
The sharp uptick has been linked to viral videos, posted to TikTok and other social media platforms, teaching people how to start the cars with USB cables and exploit a security vulnerability in some models sold in the U.S. without engine immobilizers, a standard feature on most cars since the 1990s preventing the engine from starting unless the key is present.
But unlike some social media-driven trends that seemingly disappear just as police get a handle on them, the car thefts have continued. Hyundai has tried to work with TikTok and other platforms to remove the videos, but as new ones surface fresh waves of thefts occur, illustrating the lingering effects of dangerous content that gains traction with teens looking for ways to go viral.
It’s a phenomenon known as performance crime. Police departments in a dozen cities have said it factors into an increase they’ve seen in juveniles arrested or charged with car thefts. Still, criminology experts caution that the role teens are playing in the theft increases may be artificially inflated because teenagers inexperienced at crime are more likely to be caught.
Attorneys general from 17 states have called on federal regulators to issue a mandatory recall, arguing the voluntary software fixes issued by the companies aren’t enough. Multiple cities including Baltimore, Milwaukee and New York have filed or announced plans to join legal action against the automakers, which also are facing class-action and civil lawsuits from consumers like Neal. One such lawsuit was settled for roughly $200 million last week.
The National Highway and Safety Administration blames the trend for at least 14 crashes and eight fatalities, but lawyers suing the carmakers say the number is likely much higher.
Earlier this month in Milwaukee, a stolen Kia collided with a school bus, leaving a 15-year-old who was hanging out the window in critical condition. Police later arrested four 14-year-olds, one of whom allegedly was driving.
Many of the calls for accountability have been directed at the automakers.
But some police departments, victims and the automakers also point the finger at social media platforms.
In a statement, a TikTok spokesperson pushed back on assertions that many of the dangerous challenges mentioned in news reports had reached mass popularity on the platform.
“There is no evidence any of these challenges ever ‘trended’ on TikTok, and there is a clear documented history that many challenges falsely associated with TikTok predate the platform entirely,” TikTok spokesperson Ben Rathe said.
TikTok’s enforcement report from the last three months of 2022 showed 5% of the videos the company removed were due to dangerous acts and challenges, with 82% removed within 24 hours.