Changes in national crime trends are usually gradually seen and difficult to explain. Property crime has generally been falling slowly for the better part of two decades. Murder fell in the 1990s at a relatively steady single-digit percent clip with numerous potential causes that bely easy explanation even today.
One exception to gradually changing crime trends is the rise in gun violence that began in mid-2020. This spike was sudden and clearly tied chronologically to the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. The sudden increase in gun violence in 2020 is still not easy to explain nor is it simple to say why gun violence has remained persistently high in the 2.5 years since.
The rise in auto thefts in 2022, therefore, is something of an outlier: a sudden change in crime that is easily explained by a single event. In this case, a video posted on TikTok has led to a massive increase in car thefts across many — though not all — US cities with available data.
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The video showed users how to easily hotwire a Hyundai or Kia vehicles produced over the last decade. The video was up for less than two weeks but the impact on auto thefts throughout the nation has been immense.
To better show the trend I grabbed monthly auto theft data for 2021 and 2022 for 33 agencies with publicly available incident-level data. Auto thefts were up over the second half of 2022relative to the first half in 28 of the 33 agencies with data with more agencies having a greater than 50 percent increase (7) than had a decrease (5).
Some cities had particularly egregious increases while the increase was gradual in some of the cities and more sudden in others. Below shows the monthly total for six cities that had enormous increases in auto thefts.
Other sources back up this finding. The FBI’s quarterly crime data — which can be somewhat unreliable sometimes — showed auto theft up in 16 of the 20 cities that reported the most auto thefts through the 3rd quarter of 2021. A recently released report from the Council on Criminal Justice found a similar rise in auto thefts in big cities.
The problem of surging auto thefts can be tied to Kia and Hyundai vehicles by breaking down stolen cars by type of car. Only one agency - Portland - publishes this data, but I was able to supplement this with data from New Orleans used in a City Council presentation earlier this month. Together these two data sources point to the TikTok video as the heart of the problem.
In Portland, the share of stolen vehicles that were Kias or Hyundais rose from 4 percent in January 2022 to 34 percent in December. Auto thefts actually fell slightly overall in Portland over the second half of 2022, but the number of stolen Kias and Hyundais rose 672 percent in December 2022 relative to January 2022.
The trend was even more extreme in New Orleans where Kias and Hyundais went from making up around 5 percent of stolen vehicles in the first half of 2022 to over half of all stolen vehicles in December.
The data don’t show show what is being done with the stolen cars by offenders though Portland’s dashboard shows that the vast majority (95 percent) of Kia/Hyundai stolen since July have been recovered. That’s higher than the share of all other vehicles that were recovered over that span (89 percent).
It is not clear where auto thefts will go from here. There are a finite number of Kia/Hyundai on the streets and owner awareness of the problem will likely help these incidents come down over the next few months by being more cautious and using tools like steering wheel locks. But the secret is out there and it is not clear whether there is an easy fix to the problem.
It’s also not clear why there were almost-comedically high spikes in auto thefts in some cities but little change or even declines in other cities. Why would auto thefts skyrocket in New Orleans, but not in Baton Rouge 75 miles away? Why a huge surge in Chicago and a sizable decline in nearby Milwaukee?
EDIT 1/27/23: A very helpful commenter notes that the trick for stealing Kias/Hyundai vehicles was introduced in Milwaukee in the last few years which would explain a ton. Sure enough, going back to 2019 shows a huge surge in the back half of 2020 which peaked over the summer of 2021. Auto thefts are still high in Milwaukee but have declined from peak.
These differences likely speak to factors related to the nature of the crime, who is committing it, and what is being done with the stolen vehicles, but answering them remains beyond our capacity with the presently available data.
Data was available through September 2022 for New York City. The YTD comparison is for July through September for New York.
The override instructional video originated in Milwaukee. Milwaukee peaked early. In July of 2021 free steering wheel locks were made available to residents due to widespread theft of kias. Compare Milwaukee 2020 to 2021 to see
You could've add me to the list, but fortunately my neighbor came home which startled the punks. The car is undrivable, and had to be towed. The tow truck guy, looking at the ignition said that I was within 5 minutes from not having a car. BTW I live in Central City here in NOLA, and I drive a 2015 KIA.