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California has a plan to address online tutorials that have led to rising auto theft


It's the social media trend that's fueling a surge in car thefts.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Look how easy Kias is to steal.

RASCOE: Videos show how certain models of Hyundais and Kias can be hotwired with only a screwdriver and a USB cable because they're not fitted with engine immobilizers, which essentially act as anti-theft devices. And it's bringing misery to thousands of drivers.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The car's dead. The engine's dead. Now who wants to buy this?

RASCOE: Now, attorneys general in 17 states have signed a letter calling on the car companies to recall the affected vehicles. Among them is California's Rob Bonta, who joins us now from Palm Springs. Thank you so much for joining us.

ROB BONTA: Thank you for having me. Honored to be here.

RASCOE: So it's estimated that more than 8 million vehicles could be vulnerable to this kind of theft. How has your state been affected by these Hyundai and Kia cars being stolen in this manner?

BONTA: We've seen a major spike in thefts of Hyundai and Kia vehicles that we've been focusing on with our requests for a recall. And we're seeing, in some cities, doubling, tripling of thefts of these specific vehicles because of the knowledge that all you need is a screwdriver and a USB cable to be able to steal them. And viral videos show exactly how to do it. These manufacturers violated the law, in our view, by failing to equip these vehicles with standard protections and anti-theft technology, including engine immobilizers. At the very same time they were manufacturing these cars in the United States, they were - without the engine immobilizers, they were manufacturing and selling the exact same cars with engine immobilizers in Europe and Canada. They cut corners. They were trying to save a buck.

RASCOE: So you're one of the signatories of a letter calling on Hyundai and Kia to recall these vehicles. But both companies say that customers can get a software fix at their dealers. So why do you think a recall is still necessary?

BONTA: The process that Hyundai and Kia is taking is taking too long. Some will not get the fix until later this summer. Some owners, their vehicles - the fix does not take - it does not work. We anticipate and predict that's about 72,000 in California. So they need a car that follows the law and the safety standards of the federal government.

RASCOE: So Kia, for example, says its vehicles comply with federal safety standards. So that's why they say a recall isn't necessary. Do you believe that the federal law is at a place where it is actually covering what needs to be covered when it comes to this anti-theft technology and making sure that cars have it?

BONTA: I think Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 114 is pretty clear. It requires that a vehicle that's manufactured and sold in the United States operate when the key is activated and not operate when the key is not activated. And the latter is not true. Without the key activated in the vehicle, it is very easy, again, with a screwdriver and a USB cable, to make the vehicle operate, and I believe that violates Federal Motor Vehicle Standard 114. It seems the manufacturers don't agree.

RASCOE: This problem - certainly, it involves car manufacturers. But do you think that social media companies have a responsibility to remove what are basically crime tutorials from their platforms?

BONTA: I do. When those videos were put on TikTok and other platforms, I do believe that those platforms, those companies should have taken them down immediately. Some did, maybe not as fast as necessary, but Kia and Hyundai made a conscious and deliberate decision to essentially have a car that may as well have a sign that said steal me on it. The main culpability here, the failure to follow the law, to follow the safety laws of the United States of America, lies at the feet of Kia and Hyundai.

RASCOE: That's Rob Bonta, California's attorney general. Thank you so much for joining us.

BONTA: Thanks for having me.


Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.

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