Photo by Carlos Gonzalez, STAR TRIBUNE

A Minneapolis woman's Kia was stolen 5 times: 'I am going out of my mind'

Because of the car's security flaw, thousands of Minnesotans have had their vehicles stolen. Hundreds of them are repeat victims.

By Rachel Hutton Star Tribune

March 7, 2024
Photo by Carlos Gonzalez, STAR TRIBUNE

Nancy Cameron leased her white Kia Soul — the cute, boxy ones advertised by dancing hamsters — in May 2020, and sprang for personalized plates. At first, she was happy with her decision. "I just wanted a nice little car," she recalled. "And I love that car, even today."

Two years later, Cameron walked to her parking stall behind her apartment in Minneapolis' Whittier neighborhood and noticed her car was missing. She wondered if she'd parked it somewhere else. Then she saw glass on the ground. Her mind raced through the consequences: I can't go where I was going to go. I drive for my job. What am I going to do?

A couple days later, the car was recovered. Cameron had it repaired and, within a few weeks, was back behind the wheel. "I was like, 'That'll never happen again,'" she recalled.

At the time, Cameron had no idea that she'd become a repeat victim in the wave of Kia and Hyundai thefts sweeping the country.

After a security vulnerability in the cars' ignition system was shared widely on social media, the number of Kias and Hyundais stolen in Minneapolis and St. Paul jumped from roughly 350 in 2021 to nearly 3,500 in 2022. In 2023, Kia/Hyundai thefts decreased slightly in St. Paul to just shy of 700, while in Minneapolis, thefts leaped above 4,500.

Cameron has had Kias stolen so many times — five — and broken into, presumably in an attempted theft, so many times — five — that to recount all the incidents, she relies on an inch-thick file of paperwork.

She's lost countless hours mired in police reports, insurance claims, financial calculations and contracts, plus thousands of dollars out-of-pocket.

The Minnesota Attorney General's Office is currently investigating whether Kia and Hyundai have violated the state's consumer protection and public nuisance laws. And numerous government entities have been urging a national recall.

Cameron hopes she might receive a few thousand dollars from a $200 million class-action settlement poised for final approval this summer. But she can't put a price on the psychological toll of the thefts — the feelings of frustration and blame that damaged her relationships and her sense of self.

"Every time I'd start to think about it, I would just get furious and start to cry," she said, reflecting on that dark period. "I told my sister, 'I am going out of my mind.'"

Not again

Cameron, a real estate agent and property manager, moved to Uptown in 1983 — just as the "Cheers"-like hangout Figlio arrived. ("The '80s were very good in Uptown. The punkers were still around.") For the next four decades, Cameron lived in apartments, a condo and a duplex in the Stevens Square, Lowry Hill and Lyn-Lake neighborhoods. She's now 64, but her style — tiny nose stud, her miniature pinscher's name tattooed in kanji — blends in with the younger crowds congregating at the neighborhood's lakes and bars.

All those years and Cameron had only once been the victim of a crime. (Thieves broke into her Honda and stole a fax machine.) Urbanites begrudgingly accept the fact that if you park your car on the street long enough, somebody will probably clip your side mirror and not leave a note. Yet most take for granted that their car will still be where they left it.

But in October 2022, Cameron's car was stolen — again. Along with keys to all the rental properties Cameron was managing, paired with their addresses. (She paid $3,000 of her own money to have all the locks immediately changed.)

As weeks went by and the car was still missing, Cameron started to worry. If it wasn't found, or was totaled, she'd take a major financial hit because of the terms of her lease. She spent hours driving all over the city, up and down alleys, in a desperate, futile search for her vehicle. ("They tell you not to do that, but I was so pissed.")

Finally, it turned up, with relatively minor damage. While her car was being repaired, Cameron's rental — a Kia Optima — was stolen from her parking spot.

"That's when I started to go, 'Omigod, this is insanity.'"

Empathy and rage

Cameron paid two $500 deductibles for her car and the rental, and started down the internet rabbit hole, researching the Kia-theft trend.

She came across a "Kia Boys Documentary" by a Milwaukee YouTuber who asked a few self-identified car thieves to demonstrate how they'd jam a screwdriver into a car's steering column and start it with a USB cable. "There was just no guilt, no shame, no nothing," Cameron said. "They just thought it was funny. And then it spread."

The mostly middle-and-high-school-age thieves, who often call themselves "Kia Boys," tend to steal cars for joyriding. But some have been involved in dangerous police chases. (Last year, a teen in an allegedly stolen Kia sped down Hwy. 62 in Edina, ran through a highway fence and hit a tree). There have also been fatalities. (In 2022, a 70-year-old St. Paul woman was killed when a stolen Kia hit her vehicle.)

She was angry at the thieves. Their parents. The neighborhood. Her landlord who wouldn't let her out of her lease. Her friends and family, who asked if maybe she'd forgotten to lock the car, or told her "That's too bad."

Her rage metastasized. "I started to go, 'I hate everybody,'" she recalled. "I'm just so sick of this."

Later that year, Cameron bought a car alarm ("$650 I didn't really have.") and a Club steering-wheel lock. ($50, since trashed by thieves.)

In February 2023, thieves broke a window, presumably attempting to steal the car, and fled after the alarm went off. In June, another window was smashed. In July, it happened again. Cameron often raced outside in her stocking feet after hearing her car alarm. But she never encountered a thief. ("What would I even do? I don't have a weapon. I don't even have my shoes on.")

When the Kia's lease was up, Cameron realized that rising interest rates and vehicle prices would make leasing another vehicle significantly more expensive. She didn't have much cash to buy. She decided her best option was to purchase the Kia and cross her fingers. (Selling it would incur a large loss because resale values had plummeted.)

Breaking down

In August, Cameron moved to Uptown, where she hoped her car would be safer. But less than two weeks later, someone broke into the Kia, drove it a few feet, and abandoned it, still running.

Cameron felt trapped. The theft-deterring software update Kia offered wasn't compatible with the alarm she'd bought. (And Kias with the update have been stolen anyway.) Her insurance company couldn't give her any relief.

Though the police were sympathetic (one pointed her toward a crime-victim emergency fund), they were bouncing from theft to theft. When a stolen Kia was abandoned in the alley behind Cameron's building that summer, an officer noted it was the fifth one of the day.

It didn't seem reasonable to remove her car's battery every time she parked — a theft-deterrent suggested by a guy at the impound lot. Yet she didn't want to leave Minneapolis, her source of employment and community. ("I'm sad that our city is like this, but I love this city," she said.)

Frustrated and demoralized, Cameron wrote a "scathing" letter to her City Council representative, the tone of which she now regrets. "I was snapping at people, defensive, angry at the world," she said. "I took it out on the people who care about me."

It got so bad that Cameron's friends and family members suggested she seek counseling.

Cameron hadn't let on how badly the situation had eroded her self-esteem. "I was so embarrassed," she said. "Because I felt like they were just starting to think, 'You are so stupid. You're living in a bad neighborhood and you hang onto that car.' ... I thought: How many bad decisions can I make?"

Cameron broke down sobbing when she told her story to a therapist, who pointed her to an intensive psychotherapy program. After a few months, she's trained herself to ward off negative thoughts.

Cameron's reaction to the thefts sounded familiar to Sarah Garcia of Cornerstone, the Twin Cities' primary nonprofit provider of crime victim support services, who noted that even for nonviolent crimes, the mental and emotional toll can be "extreme."

Garcia, who manages services for victims of general crimes, explained that the transportation challenges and financial hardship caused by having a car stolen can bring overwhelming stress. And those who are repeatedly victimized, despite having put preventive measures in place, feel especially vulnerable. "Helpless is a word I hear a lot," she said. "It affects their faith in the system. It affects their faith in the community."

For one Minnesota family, the worry that their Kia would get stolen caused so much stress that after the car disappeared in Powderhorn, they considered it a blessing in disguise when it turned up totaled. Now they could finally move on.

When Andrea Sieve, of the Lowry Hill East neighborhood, realized her Kia had vanished from outside her apartment, her panic was so severe she that threw up. After the car was recovered, totaled, Sieve scrambled to find a replacement. In the meantime, her rental car was vandalized.

The hassle and lost sense of security Sieve experienced led her to tears and excessive drinking. "Had I not had my dad helping me, I probably would have lost my mind," she recalled.

A year later, Sieve is still upset that the car she worked two jobs to buy was treated like a toy. "When I see kids driving around in stolen cars, it makes me so angry. They have no idea how much they're affecting someone's life."

Cameron is looking into getting a free ignition cylinder protector that Kia just started offering. St. Paul Police Commander Tracy Henry said Kia sent her department one of the devices, which she thinks will be an effective tool in preventing thefts. And may eventually reduce the number of attempts. "As they're realizing they can't defeat that next layer," she said of the thieves, "then down the road, things will taper off."

After Cameron's car was stolen yet again, and broken into yet again, in late December, she put up flyers in search of a secure parking spot. ("I am desperate!" I will clean out a garage in any condition.") A few neighbors likely heard a car alarm blaring one Sunday night in February and assumed it was just the Life in Uptown soundtrack — not their unlucky neighbor getting her car window smashed once more.

Cameron hasn't yet achieved the "radical acceptance" of her situation that she's working toward. But she is in a better place than when she wrote of her tormentors on Nextdoor: "They not only stole my car, they stole my trust in people."