TikTok and other social media trends are bringing performance crimes to the forefront of US attention

NEW YORK (AP) — Jonnifer Neal’s Kia was stolen twice in one day — first outside her home in Chicago and then outside the machine shop where she took it for repairs.

But Neal’s ordeal didn’t end there. After her car was recovered a month later, she was stopped twice by the police on her way home from work because a police error left the Optima on the stolen list. The same mistake caused the officers to wake her up at 3am the next night. On another occasion, a swarm of officers stopped her on her way to Mississippi, handcuffed her, and placed her in the back of a police car for more than an hour.

The Kia is now in the garage.

“It’s been a few months, but to be honest, I’m still nervous,” Neal said. “I drove this car maybe once on a blue moon and I loved the car.”

Neal’s story is one of thousands of stories of Kia and Hyundai owners across the country whose cars have been stolen or damaged in the past two years.

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The surge has been linked to viral videos, posted on TikTok and other social media platforms, teaching people how to start cars with USB cables and exploit a security flaw in some models sold in the US without engine immobilizers, a standard feature on most cars since the 1990s 1920s, preventing the engine from starting if the key is not present.

But unlike some social media-driven trends that seem to disappear once the police start tackling them, car thefts do. uninterrupted. Hyundai has tried to work with TikTok and other platforms to remove the videos, but as new ones come out, there are new waves of theft, illustrating the lingering effects of dangerous content gaining ground dealing with teenagers looking for ways to viral spread.

This phenomenon is known as performance crime. Police departments in more than a dozen cities have said this has resulted in an increase in the number of minors arrested or charged with car theft. Still, criminology experts warn that the increasing role of teenagers in thefts – which began during the pandemic and is not limited to Kia and Hyundai – may be artificially inflated as teenagers inexperienced in crime are more likely to be caught.

Attorneys General of 17 states they called on federal regulators to issue a mandatory recall, arguing voluntary software patches issued by companies are not enough. Multiple cities, including Baltimore, Milwaukee and New York City, have filed or announced plans to join legal action against automakers who are also facing class action and civil lawsuits from consumers like Neal. One such lawsuit was settled roughly $200 million last week.

The National Highway and Safety Administration blames the trend for at least 14 crashes and eight fatalities, but lawyers suing automakers say the number is likely much higher.

Morgan Kornfeind was attending a yoga class in Portland, Oregon, in late March when a man in a stolen Kia crashed into her while fleeing from police while driving the wrong way. The 25-year-old suffered lacerations, broken bones and extensive leg injuries. She needed surgery and goes to multiple doctor appointments every week.

“I can’t work at a job that I love very much. I can’t do yoga or walk my dogs. I missed my planned trips with friends due to ongoing rehabilitation. The thought of driving again causes me great distress,” she wrote in a statement.

Earlier this month, a Kia was stolen in Milwaukee collided with the school bus, leaving a 15-year-old boy hanging out of a window in critical condition. Police later arrested four 14-year-olds, one of whom was allegedly driving.

Many calls for accountability have been issued to car manufacturers. MLG Attorneys at Law, a California-based law firm specializing in car defects lawsuits, has received more than 4,000 inquiries from victims like Kornfeind.

“And the amazing thing is that it’s not slowing down,” said Randy Shrewsberry, MLG’s chief strategy officer.

But some police departments, victims and automakers are also pointing the finger at social media platforms. Videos posted on YouTube in recent weeks show people breaking into various cars or using a USB cable to hot plug cars. The company removed the videos after being notified by The Associated Press.

YouTube has removed videos of what is known as the “Kia Challenge” in recent months, spokeswoman Elena Hernandez said in a statement, while stressing that the company takes context into account when making these decisions.

“We may allow certain videos if they are educational, documentary, scientific or artistic in nature,” Hernandez wrote.

In a statement, a TikTok spokesperson dismissed claims that many of the dangerous challenges mentioned in news reports have achieved massive popularity on the platform.

“There is no evidence that any of these challenges have ever been ‘trenched’ on TikTok, and there is a clearly documented history that many of the challenges falsely associated with TikTok are completely older than the platform,” said TikTok spokesman Ben Rathe.

Hany Farid, who stepped down from TikTok’s US content advisory board in January because he felt he was unable to influence change, said TikTok tends to be defensive when criticized for its content moderation practices. He admitted that it is a challenge to understand the origins of some trends as content moves quickly between platforms.

“It’s very much a Whack-A-Mole problem,” said Farid, a digital forensics expert at the University of California, Berkeley. “Because these platforms are not designed to be safe for children or anyone.”

TikTok’s enforcement report from the last three months of 2022 found that 5% of videos removed by the company were due to dangerous acts and challenges, with 82% removed within 24 hours.

Like many social media platforms, TikTok screens content using a combination of AI and human moderators who try to catch anything the AI ​​might miss. A spokesperson said technology is easier to detect certain violations, such as nudity, than things like teenagers breaking into cars. Human moderators provide a second level of control when content is questionable.

Users also sometimes undermine the control of the platform by making spelling mistakes or changing words in hashtags. Some see this as a loophole worthy of attention. TikTok says it monitors misspellings and advertises content being removed from major hashtags as a success.

Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, did not respond to a request for comment on how it screens similar videos.

While the Kia Challenge is now a popular crime trend on social media, it is not the first. Experts say this doesn’t mean social media is causing a paradigm shift in criminal activity.

In LaGrange, Georgia, a town of about 31,000 near the Alabama border, police dealt with fallout from the “Orbeez Challenge” in front of the Kia Challenge, where people used toys or airsoft guns to shoot small gel-filled pellets, exclaimed Orbeez to strangers or friends. Lieutenant Mark Cavender said officers were concerned when they saw middle schoolers using toy guns painted black to look like real weapons, and immediately issued warnings for them to stop.

Michael Scott, director of the Problem-Oriented Policing Center at Arizona State University, said social media has not completely changed crime.

“Social media seems like a radically new thing, but the only new things are speed and reach,” said Scott.

There are also many examples of trends in criminal activity that spread before social media existed as it does today. Before there were “robbery mobs”, there was a “wildness” in the 1980s where groups of people gathered in public to wreak havoc, destroy or steal property. And before the Kia Challenge in the 90s, there were groups of teenagers who figured out they could steal General Motors cars with a screwdriver.

Scott, who was then a police officer in St. Louis, said the automaker was slow when officers noticed an increase in thefts of their cars.

“Even without social media, this technique has spread across the country,” he said. “What social media has changed has accelerated this process. Previously, you had to meet or meet someone who realized that all you need is a screwdriver.”

Lauer reported from Philadelphia.

Copyright 2023 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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