Home / News / CBS New York Investigates: NYPD launching new unit to handle surge in car thefts in Bronx and Queens

CBS New York Investigates: NYPD launching new unit to handle surge in car thefts in Bronx and Queens

May 20, 2023May 20, 2023

By Tim McNicholas

July 11, 2023 / 11:30 PM / CBS New York

NEW YORK -- There is a new warning for car owners. Motor vehicle thefts are up across New York City.

NYPD data shows they're up 350% compared to mid-2019 and 18% over this time last year.

And as CBS New York investigative reporter Tim McNicholas found out, the NYPD is cracking down on these crimes in two particular areas.

Police say, just about a week ago, the driver of a stolen Hyundai ran a red light and collided with another car near East 179th Street and Audobon Avenue.

Two passengers in the stolen car, just 15 and 17 years old, died.

It was the exact kind of tragedy that Det. Tom Kelly of the NYPD Auto Crime Unit warned of in an interview with CBS New York just four days before the crash.

"On top of what they might do with a car, they're just kids who don't know how to drive a car. They're gonna hurt themselves. They're gonna hurt somebody else," Kelly said.

And months ago, the mayor and NYPD commissioner held a news conference on their concerns about the Kia Boyz TikTok challenge, where kids use videos to show off how they exploit vulnerabilities in Kias and Hyundais to hot wire the cars and take them on dangerous joy rides.

"They're able to manipulate the switch," Kelly said.

The NYPD says the thefts of those kinds of cars are why motor vehicle thefts are still going up across the city.

When asked how many cases are on his desk at any given time, Kelly said, "They come in waves. It could be anywhere from 10 to 30."

He was then asked to compare the case load to a few years ago.

"There's definitely more now, I would say," Kelly said.

Now Det. Kelly is about to get some more help. The NYPD says the biggest increases in car thefts are in the the Bronx and the north side of Queens. So now the department will launch a new unit, with new investigators, that will specifically handle car thefts in those two areas.

"We're gonna put some new white shield, newly minted detectives in the Detective Squad, and they're gonna start investigating cases for the local DA to present the best case for those stolen car perps, the recidivists," NYPD Chief of Patrol John Chell said.

Police are also concerned about the thefts of Hondas, like one that was broken into and then stolen last month in South Ozone Park in just about 90 seconds.

"This is a game of speed. Nobody wants to get caught red handed stealing a car. They'd like to be in and out as fast as possible," Kelly said.

READ MORE: Kia and Hyundai owners who had their cars stolen can get settlement money

That's why in addition to the new investigators, the NYPD has been giving out steering wheel locks to some Kia, Hyundai and Honda drivers.

Kia and Hyundai say they've also been working to get free locks to owners.

"It's an old school solution to a new problem," Kelly said.

But police have also been giving away new school tools -- tracking devices like Apple AirTags.

"Were just gonna hide the AirTag somewhere," Kelly said.

So if the cars do get stolen, detectives will hopefully know where to find them.

"We want to solve 100% of the crimes, if we could," Kelly said.

Police said they later found that stolen Honda parked in the Bronx because the owner left an AirTag inside.

Now they're looking for whoever stole it, and a new group of investigators might soon be looking, too.

Police hope to find that thief before tragedy finds them.

The NYPD, Kia and Hyundai are all encouraging eligible owners of those cars to upgrade their security software.

Kia shared the following statement with CBS New York:

"Kia has taken and continues to take action to help our customers by making it more difficult for criminals to use methods of theft popularized on social media to steal certain vehicle models. In addition to announcing an agreement last month that will allow customers who have been impacted by vehicle thefts to receive additional benefits, Kia has notified all eligible owners and lessees of these vehicle models - over 3 million total - that they are now able to receive the free security software upgrade that we have developed. When installed, the upgrade further enhances the vehicle's security by restricting the operation of the ignition system should a potential criminal attempt to steal a locked vehicle without the key, and we have established a dedicated website where eligible owners can learn more about how to receive the free upgrade.

We also continue to provide steering wheel locks to owners of impacted vehicles that are not eligible for the software upgrade at no cost to them. Customers can obtain free, Kia-provided locks through their local law enforcement, or they can request a steering wheel lock from Kia directly through our dedicated website. To date, we have distributed more than 170,000 locks and we will continue to provide them to law enforcement agencies and to consumers as they are needed.

Kia has consistently emphasized its willingness work cooperatively with law enforcement agencies in New York City and across the country to combat car theft and the role social media has played in encouraging it, and we remain committed to supporting our customers and to vehicle security."

Hyundai released the following:

"Hyundai Motor America is committed to ensuring the quality and integrity of our products. A subset of Hyundai vehicles on the road in the U.S. today - primarily "base trim" or entry-level models - are not equipped with push-button ignitions and immobilizing anti-theft devices. It is important to clarify that an engine immobilizer is an anti-theft device and these vehicles are fully compliant with federal anti-theft requirements. Thieves discovered a specific method by which to bypass the vehicles' security features and then documented and promoted their exploits on TikTok and other social media channels.

In response, Hyundai has taken comprehensive action to assist our customers, including: (1) Made engine immobilizers standard on all vehicles produced as of November 2021; (2) Developed a software upgrade to equip these vehicles with an "ignition kill" feature designed to prevent the popularized method of theft; (3) Rolled out the free anti-theft software upgrade to all of the nearly 4 million vehicles involved - two months ahead of the original schedule - through a service campaign to affected customers who own or lease model year 2011-2022 vehicles; (4) Launched a dedicated website, toll-free number (888) 498-0390 and digital advertising to generate awareness of the software upgrade, help customers determine their eligibility, and schedule an appointment at their local Hyundai dealership; (5) Initiated a program to reimburse affected customers for their purchase of steering wheel locks, including for a smaller group of 2011-2022 model year vehicles that cannot accommodate the software upgrade; (6) Established a program to provide free steering wheel locks to law enforcement agencies across the country for distribution to local residents who own or lease the affected vehicles; (7) Collaborated with AAA insurers on a program to offer insurance options for affected owners and lessees. As part of this collaboration, AAA insurers will issue new and renewal policies for eligible affected Hyundai customers. The program will be available in all states with the exception of those states where AAA does not offer insurance. (e.g., Alaska, , Massachusetts, Washington).

Hyundai is committed to continuing our efforts in completing the software upgrade for all affected vehicles in the most effective manner possible. We are communicating with NHTSA on our many actions to assist our customers."

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Tim McNicholas is a reporter for CBS New York. He joined the team in September 2022 after working in Chicago, Indianapolis, Toledo and Hastings, Nebraska.

First published on July 11, 2023 / 11:30 PM

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