William Tong and Scott Sansom
Attorney General William Tong and East Hartford Police Chief Scott Sansom during a press conference on June 20, 2023 Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong ramped up efforts to force auto manufacturers Kia and Hyundai to install anti-theft technology in their vehicles on Tuesday when he announced a consumer protection investigation into easily stolen cars. 

“We’re deploying our investigators, we’re deploying our lawyers and we’re going to put a lot of heat on them,” Tong said during a late morning press conference.

The event was held inside the East Hartford Police Department, where officials have begun offering residents who own Hyundais and Kias a complimentary low-tech anti-theft tool. An officer carrying a steering wheel lock, commonly known as “The Club,” met Tong in the building’s lobby.

“What is this, 1991?” Tong said as they stepped onto an elevator.

East Hartford officials say they have handed out hundreds of the devices in an effort to curtail thefts of the vehicles, which lack a widely used component known as an engine immobilizer. More than half of the roughly 100 cars stolen in East Hartford during the last six months have been either Hyundais or Kias, according to Police Chief Scott Sansom.

“This is not going to cut it,” Tong said of the steering wheel locks. Kia and Hyundai were global companies with enough resources to recall the vehicles and install immobilizers, he said. “Don’t throw us a few clubs out of your spare petty cash. Make it right for Connecticut consumers and families before somebody else gets killed.”

The issue affects certain models sold by the two companies and manufactured between 2010 and 2022. The ease with which the vehicles can be stolen has become common knowledge, in part due to social media trends including a so-called “Kia Challenge” on TikTok, which has impacted Hyundia and Kia drivers across the country. 

“This has resulted in major property damage, major public safety risks and hazards and people have gotten hurt and people have gotten killed,” Tong said. “This is a very serious issue that we have called on Kia and Hyundai to fix and they haven’t done it.” 

Hyundai did immediately responded to requests for comment left Tuesday afternoon. A spokesperson for Kia said that, contrary to Tong’s claims, the manufacturer continued to take action to deter theft if its vehicles. A recall would be inappropriate because the vehicles complied with federal standards, the statement said.

“Kia has been and continues to be willing to work cooperatively with law enforcement agencies across Connecticut 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,” the statement read in part.

The two companies have taken a number of steps to address the problem short of installing immobilizers in the affected vehicles. They have reimbursed drivers for steering wheel locking devices and have rolled out free anti-theft software

Last month, the companies announced a $200 million settlement to compensate customers whose insurance did not cover their claims after their vehicles were stolen or damaged as a result of thefts. The settlement could impact drivers of around 9 million vehicles, according to a joint press release. 

Legal officers from both manufacturers praised the settlement.

“This agreement is the latest step in a series of important actions, in addition to providing a free security software upgrade and distributing over 65,000 steering wheel locks, that Kia has taken to help customers whose vehicles have been targeted by criminals using methods of theft popularized on social media,” John Yoon of Kia America said. 

Tong, who in March was among a group of attorneys general to call on the automakers to install the immobilizers in their vehicles, said the manufacturers’ efforts have not gone far enough. 

State investigators have asked Hyundai and Kia for records and information regarding vehicles sold in Connecticut, Tong said. According to a press release, they have also requested internal communications related to the manufacturers’ decision to sell theft-susceptible vehicles. 

“At the end of the day I want Kia and Hyundai to step forward and make this right but if they don’t, we will sue them, we will hold them accountable and we’ll make them pay,” Tong said.

The consumer protection investigation stems from state authority under the Department of Consumer Protection. The agency’s commissioner, Bryan Cafferelli, thanked Tong for advancing the issue. 

“Vehicles are a major purchase for families in this state and they deserve to know that their cars will be secure and not subject to issues like these,” Cafferelli said.