- Car thefts have been going up for years in Austin, with the total number up 138% this year compared to 2019.
- The thefts don’t appear to be slowing: August had more car thefts than any other month this year.
- Nationally, car thefts were up about 33.5% in big cities through June of this year. Compared to the same period in 2019, auto thefts are up 104% across the country.
At about 7 a.m. on April 24, Max Peabody heard a knock at the door. It was an Austin police officer, who informed him that somebody tried to steal his car, but they had been scared away by a neighbor.
Peabody typically parked on the street of his apartment in East Austin. But after this incident, and learning that his car, a Hyundai, was ripe for auto thefts due to a social media trend, he decided to start parking in the apartment’s garage. Two weeks later, it was stolen out of the garage.
Peabody’s car was found, but with damage. When Hyundais are stolen, the steering wheel column and ignition are typically ripped out. It took months to get Peabody’s car fixed because there are back orders on these parts due to the increase in thefts.
Peabody decided to buy a new car and sell the Hyundai. By early August, it was finally fixed and ready to be picked up.
It was stolen again from the mechanic shop’s parking lot.
“I couldn’t help but laugh,” Peabody said. “This car is cursed.”
Peabody is not alone. In Austin, car thefts have jumped nearly 30% this year through August compared with 2022. Nationally, crime has generally been trending down in major cities from its pandemic increases — something Austin also witnessed — except for auto thefts.
What do the numbers say?
The latest available data from the Austin Police Department show there were 648 auto thefts last month — more than any other month this year and a 44% increase from August 2022.
There have been 4,461 auto thefts so far in 2023, a 30% increase from last year. This tracks with a national trend as of June of this year, according to the Council on Criminal Justice, which stated in a report that auto thefts were up 33.5% on average in big cities across the country.
Auto thefts nationally increased by about 104% through the first half of 2023 compared with the same period in 2019.
Austin has seen a 138% increase in auto thefts this year compared to January to August 2019.
What’s causing the increase?
Vehicle thefts are largely rising because some basic Hyundais and Kias from 2011 to 2022 are missing a component known as an engine immobilizer. This is something that many new cars have that won’t let a car start unless it detects the key.
This information made its way to social media, particularly TikTok. Users gave widely viewed lessons on how to steal these vehicles with just a couple of tools, dubbing it the “Kia Challenge.”
Additionally, people often use stolen vehicles to commit other crimes, such as robberies, assault and even homicide, said Julian Ogle, a detective with the Austin Police Department’s auto theft unit.
“We want people that have these cars to know just how vulnerable they are,” Ogle said at a press conference in May.
How can I prevent these thefts?
The No. 1 way to immediately keep your vehicle safe is to buy a steering wheel lock. Hyundai, also the owner of Kia, has given locks to some local police departments that owners of the vulnerable models can get for free.
The Austin Police Department said it did receive some of those locks, which can be requested by owners and picked up in person.
Other tips from the Police Department include:
- Don’t leave your vehicle unattended while it’s running.
- Don’t leave your keys in the vehicle.
- Don’t leave windows rolled down or the doors unlocked.
You can also make an appointment to get the immobilizer added to your vehicle at a dealership, but that could take a long time.
Ira Gabriel, a senior manager with Hyundai, said in an emailed statement to the American-Statesman that Hyundai dealers are working to increase the number of anti-theft and engine immobilizers that can be added in a day. Gabriel said that, as of November 2021, all Hyundais now come standard with an engine immobilizer.
“Hyundai is committed to the comprehensive actions we are undertaking to assist customers and communities affected by the persistent theft of certain vehicles not equipped with push-button ignitions and engine immobilizers,” Gabriel said.
What are Austin police doing about the increase?
Detective Francisco Jimenez, who works in the Police Department’s auto theft unit, said at a press conference in May that arrests for these crimes typically happen when a patrol officer pulls someone over and discovers that the vehicle was stolen.
Jimenez said thefts are most likely to happen in the denser areas of the city that have many vehicles in a small radius, and other places, such as the airport, where people park and leave their cars unattended for a lengthy time.
The Police Department has seen the number of auto thefts increase yearly for the past three years, he said, but this year it has gone up even more in a short period of time and at a moment when the department is already short-staffed.
“We’re doing the best we can to work the cases that we have, but we do have a lot of cases,” Jimenez said in May.