Money was already tight for Kareemah Perry before someone stole her 2018 Kia Optima.

The July theft left her without a car for a month. She missed work, paid her insurance deductible, and covered the cost of a rental.

The relief of getting her car back in August did not last long. Less than 24 hours later, it was stolen again.

Perry, a college student living paycheck to paycheck, missed more work and paid a second deductible and got another rental. The second time around she also had to pay to get her car out of the impound in Cheektowaga.

In all, she spent more than $2,000 out of pocket, and she is still waiting for her car to be repaired for the second time. Then there is the mental anguish that she and dozens of others have encountered as victims of car theft.

“This is a nightmare, and I have to deal with it,” Perry said.

Buffalo police have linked the spate of Kia and Hyundai thefts to the “Kia Challenge” on TikTok, a social media trend that encourages people to break in and steal specific models that need a traditional key to start the engine. The challenge, which started in Milwaukee, has been viewed millions of times and has mostly appealed to younger people, some of whom are not even old enough to drive.

For many people, the first time they had heard about the problem was on Oct. 24, when police said six teenagers crashed a stolen Kia Sportage off the Kensington Parkway, killing four. The 16-year-old driver survived and was charged with third-degree unauthorized use of a vehicle and one count of fourth-degree criminal possession of stolen property.  

That week, Buffalo police revealed how bad the thefts had gotten, with 253 Kia and Hyundai models stolen this year. That’s almost double the number from the prior year.

Left in the lurch are hundreds of first-time car theft victims who described the emotional and financial tolls the crimes have taken on them.

News 4 Investigates interviewed eight people who had their Kia vehicles stolen this year. None knew prior to the thefts that their vehicles could be stolen with such ease.

The eight women all urged Kia and its parent company Hyundai to recall the models that do not have engine immobilizers that prevent the vehicles from starting without a traditional key.  

They also thought Kia and law enforcement agencies should have made more effort in alerting the public to the problem months sooner through warnings, press conferences, and prevention tips.

“Having a level of awareness could have prevented some of this in some way,” said Danielle Smith, whose 2020 Kia Sportage was stolen in October by two 11-year-olds. “Realistically, it might not have, but it could have, and we’ll never know.”

When asked Tuesday, Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia did not answer if the department alerted the public about the problem prior to the fatal crash last month.

Instead, he mentioned the general outreach officers have done over the years to warn residents not to leave their keys in the car or their vehicles unlocked.

Meanwhile, Kia and Hyundai are being sued in an at least two class-action lawsuits.

In the wake of the fatal crash involving the teenagers, Kia agreed to give out steering-wheel locks to owners of models that require a traditional key to start.

The offer did not impress any of the victims who spoke to News 4.

“Buy it out and let me go somewhere else,” said Keisha Alston, who is still waiting for her 2016 Kia Optima to get repaired after it was stolen in August. “I just don’t trust you anymore. It should have never gotten this far.”

Victims speak out

Many of the Kia and Hyundai vehicles stolen have the plastic steering-wheel columns ripped out like this one

On Oct. 7, Kamali Liyanage had her 2020 Kia Sportage stolen in front of her North Buffalo home.

Like the others, a back window was shattered, and the steering wheel column ripped off.

“I actually learned later from the police that they took the police on a high-speed chase,” Liyanage said. “There were two kids in the car.”

Liyanage said police never presented the option to press charges.

“I was told they got a stern talking to,” Liyanage said. “And I am like, OK, that’s it? Really? You aren’t even exploring a diversion program?”

“It is essentially grand-theft auto,” she said. “I am not saying lock the kids up and throw away the keys. But at least write them up in family court so victims can get restitution.”

Liyanage said the stress and costs piled up, but she had the resources, friends, and family to help her get through the ordeal. But she knows not everyone is that fortunate.

“It is really unfortunate that nothing is really being done for the victims,” she said.

Carrie Pencek moved in with her father in West Seneca while she navigates through a divorce.

On Oct. 26, she woke up for work and noticed her 2014 Kia Forte was not in the driveway.

“I stood there for a minute in disbelief, and I didn’t realize that the glass was shattered on my Dad’s driveway,” said Pencek, who has joined the class-action lawsuit against Kia and Hyundai.

She said West Seneca police told her that several other vehicles in the neighborhood were reported stolen, but no suspects.

Her car was involved in a crash and abandoned in the City of Tonawanda. She said about $1,000 worth of items in the car are missing, including new sneakers, hunting gloves and boots. They even took her debit card, driver’s license, and a carton of Seneca Light 100’s cigarettes.  

Pencek agreed with others that both Kia and law enforcement could have alerted the public much sooner about the spike in thefts of Kia and Hyundai vehicles. She was not happy with Kia’s offer of steering-wheel locks.

“They should recall these vehicles and fix what they should have done in the first place,” Pencek said.

“These kids don’t realize what these people are going through at the time. That car could be their whole livelihood. I rely on that car to go to and from work, and I lost work time.”

Alston, whose Kia was stolen in August, said that while she waited for police to respond, she scrolled through Facebook and saw several posts about stolen Kia vehicles in her neighborhood by the Kensington Parkway.

“And I’m like, where did this come from?” Alston said. “Like, why is nobody talking about this?”

Alston’s police report states that officers found her car about an hour after she reported it stolen, but they never notified her. Instead, she said her insurance company called about a week later and told her to pick up her car at the impound lot in Buffalo.

“I’ve just been notified by my insurance I have until November 8 on my rental,” she said. “So, I’m hoping that I get my car back, but then what? I still have a Kia, and so, do I put a big sign on it, it says you already stole this one, like, don’t take it again?’”

Smith, whose Kia was stolen in October, said a Buffalo police officer told her it would be pointless to press charges “because nothing would happen.”

“It was said to me, like, ‘Do you really want to spend your time dealing with this? It’s going to take a year and nothing’s really going to come of it,’” she said. “And I felt really like uncomfortable because I felt like I was being pressured not to press charges.”

Smith said police found her Kia hours later after the suspects crashed it into a parked vehicle. She said that’s when an officer told her the two suspects are 11 years old. Her car was deemed a total loss.

“Yeah, that was a lot to wrap my head around,” Smith said.

Danielle Smith’s Kia was deemed a total loss after the suspects crashed into a parked vehicle.

Buffalo residents continued to report Kia thefts after the incident last month that killed the four teenagers.

Emma Ulrich said her 2018 Kia Sportage was stolen from her Buffalo driveway during the day on Oct. 30.

At 6 p.m., Orchard Park police notified her that her Kia was involved in a hit-and-run wreck.

“And I thought my car was in the driveway the whole time,” she said.

Her car sustained about $6,000 in damage and remains at the collision center for repairs. She paid her insurance deductible, the $150 to have her car towed to the impound lot, where an attendant told her they had about 100 Kia models. Ulrich also had to pay a tow fee again to get her car dropped off at the collision center.

“I didn’t realize everyone was getting their cars stolen,” she said.

Nicole Felix said the news of the four teenagers killed in the wreck last month had her nervous about whether her 2019 Kia Sportage could be next.

Indeed, this past Sunday, while she helped a friend move out of an apartment, her Kia was stolen in broad daylight in South Buffalo. Inside the car were boxes of her friend’s personal belongings that she was moving for her.

“I truly feel like they must have been watching us move all day and waited,” she said. “I kid you not, it happened in a matter of two minutes.”

Felix said she noticed several posts on a South Buffalo neighborhood Facebook page about stolen Kia and Hyundai vehicles, including by people who found vehicles crashed or stranded on the side of the road. She said her car is still missing.

“It can’t just keep happening,” Felix said. “They have to find who is doing this and they need to be punished.”

Class action lawsuits

Hyundai vehicles manufactured between 2015-2021 and Kia vehicles manufactured between 2011-2021 that use traditional keys to start the vehicle are not equipped with immobilizers. Law enforcement officials recommend owners lock their cars and park them in a garage, if available. If parked in a driveway, consider blocking it in with a second vehicle.

Jonathan Michaels, an attorney in California suing the carmaker with a class action lawsuit, said he has about 500 clients across the country, including more than a dozen from the Buffalo area.

“So many of these people, they’ll have, perhaps, liability car insurance, so if you hit someone, it’ll cover you from being sued,” Michaels said. “But they don’t have theft insurance.”

The expenses got so high for some victims that they could not afford to repair their vehicles without the insurance coverage, he said.

His lawsuit accuses Kia and Hyundai of knowing years ago about the risks of selling cars without the immobilizers.

“And what’s incredible is both Kia and Hyundai make these same vehicles in other countries with the engine immobilizers,” Michaels said.

The lawsuit states that the TikTok user “Kia Boyz” uploaded a video explaining how to steal Kia and Hyundai vehicles and challenged others to try it. Michaels said the video has been viewed 33 million times.

The challenge spread across states by the summer. Chicago reported in July that it has seen a 767% increase in Hyundai and Kia thefts and the number almost doubled in Buffalo.

The lawsuit seeks damages for victims and calls on Kia and Hyundai to recall an estimated 10 million vehicles that are at greater risk for theft.

If a recall does occur, Michaels said it could be the third-most expensive in history.

A firm in Missouri also filed a class-action lawsuit against the two car companies.

In a statement, Kia said it is aware of recent trend “encouraged by social media.”

Kia said that while “no car can be made completely theft-proof,” it agreed to equip all 2022 and later vehicles with smart-key technology.

In the meantime, Michaels recommended owners of these vehicles get a steering-wheel lock and write both carmakers with complaints.

“I think if enough people call and complain, they just might standup and do the right thing,” Michaels said.

Dan Telvock is an award-winning investigative producer and reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2018. See more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.