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How TikTok Stole My Car. It Started at 4am This Morning With a Banging on My Door.

TikTokIt’s never good when the police come to your door at 4am.

In my case, the conversation went like this:

Police Officer: “Sir, do you own a Hyundai Elantra?”

Me, groggily: “Uh…yeah.”

Police Officer: “When’s the last time you saw it?”

Me: “Well, it’s parked right over…oh…”

Turns out someone came down the street, picked out my car, hot wired it in my driveway, drove off, did a bunch of drugs and crimes, were chased by the police, and finally crashed it about 20 miles from where it was stolen.

And they learned how to do it on TikTok.

Security?  What Security?

For months, there’s been a plague of thieves stealing Kias and Hyundais.  Often the theft is done to joyride, as the thieves are typically teenagers, some as young as 11.

Their method only works on certain models and years, but it’s a wide swath: essentially the most popular models from Hyundai (2016-2021) and Kia (2011-2021).

That’s a lot of cars on the road.

The technique goes like this:

  1. Smash the window
  2. Rip the outer molding and plastic off the steering column
  3. Insert an iPhone charger

Most responsible news outlets stop at this point, but it’s fairly evident that a USB Type A cable just happens to be a perfect physical fit for the electrical connection inside.  I’m assuming the car’s battery (intercepted somewhere under the dash) is wired into the other side of the cable, providing an electric current that completes some connection inside the car’s ignition system.  It’s definitely not some slick leather-clad cyberpunk running exploit code on portable battery-powered Raspberry Pi to slickly hack the defense mainframe, and override the computer’s security, despite the fact that a USB cable is being used.

This is because there is no security.

My Hyundai

I bought my car (a 2018 Hyundai Elantra) because for several years prior, I’d been regularly traveling for work and renting cars.  I tried a wide variety of models and this was the one that felt right and fitted me best.  It was slightly less expensive yet still got good CR ratings, and I didn’t need the fancier electronics, leather upholstery, and sound systems.  I’ve driven it across the country and back multiple times and it’s been virtually flawless mechanically.

Hyundai is a second-tier manufacturer.  When they first arrived in the 80s, they were derided – mocked in a famous scene in the film Glengarry, Glen Ross.. Hyundai has subsequently made great strides.  It’s no Toyota, but in the universe of cars competing for the next tier, Hyundai successfully fights for share against Kia, American domestic makers, and second-tier Japanese makers.

Being second-tier, the fancier technologies, sensors, etc. often lag significantly behind.  How far behind?  Immobilization devices which prevent a car from starting unless it recognizes the owner’s key or fob have been around for quite a while.

If those second-tier technologies are customer-facing, they’re obvious: your car either has front-facing sensors or it doesn’t.  If it’s mechanical, you either have the knowledge about engines, brakes, transmissions, and tires or you don’t.  But the lock?  Isn’t that something most people assume the manufacturer has done an acceptable job on, without asking for engineering schematics?

There’s clearly a design flaw here, or pair of manufacturers who decided to cut corners where they shouldn’t have.  Hyundai did upgrade security on their cars very recently – like 2022 recently.  Cars manufactured during the previous 5 model years are still vulnerable.  In some cases, there are optional enhanced anti-theft systems that are available as options or from third parties.

There are class action lawsuits pending against Hyundai and Kia in several states.


This sort of sounds like essentially a 1970s technology story.  If you’ve ever watched retro TV, you’ve seen a million young punks hot-wire Corvettes in old police shows.

However, a few things are different here.

First, there’s the apparently amazing industrial coincidence that the one of the world’s most widely produced consumer cables, available at any convenience stores or your Mom’s purse, happens to perfectly fit into the ignition of hundreds of thousands of cars.

Second, when someone learned about it, there was a perfect medium (TikTok) available to share it instantly with virtually everyone on a platform where the people most likely to be interested in copycatting the crime are the dominant demographic: teens.

And finally, this medium excels in short form video.  If you’ve ever scrolled through TikTok, you’ve seen that many of the videos are designed to grab your attention immediately with someone diving off a cliff, throwing up a provocative phrase, setting up a practical joke…or barreling through neighborhood streets and city intersections with guys hanging out the windows.  I’m not a developmental psychologist, but if you told me that teenage and pre-teen guys are young, dumb, and full of…well, pick your rhyme, and a segment of them will place a high priority on wild exploits they can put on TikTok…well, I wouldn’t argue.

The distribution mechanism of the how-to video could have been anything, and indeed it was reported on YouTube as well.  But the reward feedback mechanism where you see others doing crazy things and so you go jack cars to do other crazy things is uniquely suited to TikTok’s short video format.

Teen Perpetrators

Of course, it’s possible that these weren’t teens (police are investigating), but many signs point towards juveniles rather than someone stealing the car for mercenary purposes:

  • The criminals really, really, really liked marijuana. The car looks like a crackhouse, only with blunt wrappers and dispensary bottles.  “Northern Wreck” by 45th Parallel, if you were wondering as to strain.  Ironically they wrecked my car.
  • The criminals really, really, really liked bacon jerky and grape vitamin water. I honestly couldn’t imagine eating that much bacon jerky in an entire day, though if I did, I would probably drink that much grape vitamin water.
  • They found my Benchmade Adamas knife in my gear box in my bag, but it’s clear they couldn’t figure out how to get the knife out of its Kydex sheath, which makes me laugh because it is kind of tricky even if you’re sober.
  • They also could not figure out how to start the roadside flares in my trunk, though they tried. Inside the car, btw. See the first bullet point.
  • Most amusingly, I had a rubber-banded wad of Chick Bible tracts that I found at a rest stop this summer. The tracts are mini comic books.  The thieves took them out of my door pocket and apparently leafed through them. Perhaps this spiritual light will lead them away from a life of crime…?

Sounds more like teens joyriding than professional car thieves, but I’m not a criminal science professional.

No word on any suits against TikTok but some lawyer somewhere will probably think of it.



1 Comment

  1. Kathy:

    Oh Drew. This article is so funny, informative, and aggravating! Where does the ante-upping end?

    December 18, 2022 @ 11:51 pm | Reply

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