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Unlocked cars hit by ‘Kia Challenge’ thieves

May 22, 2023May 22, 2023

Police are looking for three people after the “Kia Challenge” escalated to a vehicle pursuit early Wednesday morning.

Johnson County detectives say a group of three people entered at least four Kia vehicles in Winterbrooke Trailer Park in White River Township late Tuesday into early Wednesday morning. They likely jiggled the handles of all vehicles and entered the ones that were left unlocked, said Major Damian Katt, commander of the investigations division at the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office.

Evidence was found that suggests an attempt to steal all four vehicles was made, but they were only successful at hot wiring one, a white Kia Rio that was reported stolen at 1:42 a.m. Wednesday, Katt said.

The Rio was captured on FLOCK cameras and then located by Greenwood Police near State Road 135 and Fry Road just over an hour later at 2:57 a.m., a Greenwood police report says. An officer observed the vehicle driving around the LA Fitness parking lot, and when the driver saw the officer, the driver peeled out and cut across two lanes of traffic to leave the gym, the report says.

The officer followed the car onto State Road 135 and confirmed it had the same Indianapolis Colts plate as the stolen car. After the officer activated their lights, the driver fled, leading the officer down Fry Road and into the Quail Grove subdivision, the report says.

The chase wound around the subdivision, culminating in a crash into a garage door in the 500 block of Quail Run. The three people in the car fled on foot and the officer made the decision not to follow them until backup arrived for their safety, the report says.

Despite GPD’s best efforts after backup arrived and attempts to track them with a K9, the three people remain at large, said Matt Fillenwarth, GPD assistant chief. Not following them at the time was the right decision, as it wouldn’t be safe for one officer to pursue three suspects, he said.

All hope of finding them isn’t lost, as there is video footage from the trailer park that the sheriff’s office is attempting to use to identify suspects, Katt said.

This incident should serve as a reminder to county residents to always lock their vehicles, especially vehicles that are known to be easy to steal, Katt said.

Reports of thefts of several models of Kia and Hyundai have been on the rise nationally because thieves figured out the anti-theft software on these vehicles is easy to thwart. The “Kia Challenge,” which demonstrates how to steal a Kia by exploiting a security loophole, has been popularized on TikTok and other social media sites.

The affected cars are largely bargain-priced models manufactured from 2011 to early 2022 that were not equipped with a theft immobilizer. These devices have a computer chip in the key that must be recognized by another chip in the steering column before the engines will start.

Most automakers have had the chips for years, but Hyundai and Kia have lagged behind the industry as a whole in installing them on many models, thereby allowing thieves to exploit the security gap.

Though both automakers have put out software updates to fix this problem, many people have not had the upgrade performed. Impacted car owners received a letter about the update and this work can be performed at area dealerships for free.

For those who can’t get in to get their software upgraded immediately, a good solution is to purchase a steering wheel lock, which serves as a deterrent to would-be thieves, Katt said. The locks are inexpensive, costing around $20 to $40, a quick Google search shows.

“The best way to protect yourself is to get a steering wheel lock. Just like the unlocked door, burglars and thieves look for an easy target,” Katt said. “For vehicles that are at higher risk for breaking into, if they see the lock, they will look for an easier target.”

A steering wheel lock is ideal for Kia and Hyundai owners, but no matter what make and model your car is, just locking the doors can prevent theft, he said.

Most thieves won’t risk actually breaking into a car, as that would be noisy and draw attention. This is especially true in places like trailer parks, apartment complexes or subdivisions, where the dwellings are close together, Katt said.

It boils down to: “Help us help you,” Katt said.