What began as a social media trend in Milwaukee has become a surge in Kia and Hyundai thefts across the nation, including the Twin Cities. A slew of class-action lawsuits against the automaker allege the vehicles were built to be too easily stolen.

Residents from Minnesota and more than a dozen other states have filed lawsuits against the manufacturers in order to recoup money they lost, and it's possible that millions of other car owners could join them.

A Star Tribune analysis of police data from Minneapolis and St. Paul shows that automobile thefts have surged by about 35% in Minneapolis and 28% in St. Paul compared to last year. Vehicles made by Kia and Hyundai have helped drive this surge, because of a social media challenge dubbed "Kia Boys."

The trend started with TikTok and social media videos of Milwaukee teens and young adults challenging each other to steal Kia and Hyundai vehicles. They targeted those cars because of a design feature in many of the manufacturers' 2010-2021 models which allows people to drive without a key.

Such videos have gone viral, causing a slew of vehicle thefts that have troubled Minnesotans. In one case, thieves tried to steal a St. Paul woman's Kia Sorento, parked yards from her front porch, twice. They succeeded and totaled her car. In another instance, video captured four teens who stole a Kia, crashed it on Interstate 35E, and ran across the highway attempting to flee police. And a hit-and-run accident with a teen in a stolen Kia this July killed Phoua Hang, a 70-year-old St. Paul resident who was driving home with her husband.

Kia and Hyundai manufacturers have responded by offering free steering wheel locks to some police departments, adding that new vehicles will be equipped with engine immobilizers to prevent theft of their vehicles.

Thefts of Kia and Hyundai vehicles started climbing in Minneapolis late last year. With more than 1,000 thefts reported so far, this year's numbers nearly quadruple last year's tallies — and comprise around a fifth of all stolen vehicles where keys weren't left in the car.

South Minneapolis neighborhoods are hotspots for Kia and Hyundai thefts: Whittier, Longfellow, Powderhorn Park, Lowry Hill East, Prospect Park, Hiawatha, Central, Standish and South Uptown, according to police data.

These thefts are part of a broader trend in Minneapolis, where 3,900 motor vehicle thefts have been reported this year — more than double pre-pandemic volumes. Neighborhoods around downtown and Uptown have been among those hit the hardest, and an unprecedented number of resignations have challenged the Minneapolis Police Department's ability to stop crime.

Minneapolis police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In St. Paul, this year's more than 600 Kia and Hyundai thefts is nearly eight times 2021's volume and comprise nearly a third of all vehicle thefts in the city.

David McCabe, a spokesperson for the St. Paul Police Department, said auto thefts like these remain a priority for police because of their impact on the community.

"It's a national rise in the thefts of Kias and Hyundais, but the repercussions are felt locally," McCabe said. "If somebody's car gets stolen, it's their way to get to work. It's their way to get to medical care. It's their way to get kids to and from school."

One of those affected was Steve Zanmiller, a St. Paul resident whose 2020 Kia Sportage was stolen and determined to be a "total loss" when it was recovered. Zanmiller filed a class-action lawsuit Sept. 1, alleging that car manufacturers concealed or failed to disclose how their 2011-2021 model vehicles features make them "easy to steal, unsafe, and worth less than they should be."

A different class-action lawsuit was filed the next day by LaShaun Johnson of St. Paul, which alleges much of the same. But Minnesota is not the only state asking Kia and Hyundai to pay.

Kenneth McClain, a personal injury trial lawyer for Humphrey, Farrington & McClain in Missouri, is co-counsel for Zanmiller's case. McClain's firm has represented clients in similar lawsuits and is now involved in class-action suits against Kia and Hyundai across more than a dozen states. Some victims' theft cases have increased their insurance rates. Others' cars were turned into drug labs.

McClain said the automakers' design flaw may have affected millions of people, and his firm believes that damages may soar past $50 million. He hopes Kia and Hyundai will work with the public to find long-term solutions, but said that they could dismiss the case or delay settling with victims for years.

"This could go fast or slow depending on what Kia [and Hyundai] wants to do. If they want to fight on every issue, it'll take quite a long time," McClain said, adding that the case could end quickly if Kia and Hyundai settle with their clients. "This defective system that they have produced in the hundreds of thousands, if not the millions across the country, are sitting out there like ticking time bombs."

Hyundai Senior Manager Michele Tinson said the company will soon sell security kits to prevent thieves from stealing Hyundais without engine immobilizers. Those sales start Oct. 1.

James Bell, head of corporate communications for Kia America, said the company will continue to monitor the situation and provide free steering wheel locks to police departments. St. Paul police have received 48 Hyundai steering locks. The Star Tribune asked how many class-action lawsuits Kia is embroiled in, but Bell said it is company policy to not comment about pending litigation.