Six teenagers were cruising down Buffalo’s Route 33 in a stolen car when it crashed, propelling the five passengers through the sunroof.
The results were disastrous: Three died instantly.
A fourth died later. A fifth is still hospitalized.
The 16-year-old driver faces a misdemeanor charge of unauthorized use of a vehicle and a felony count of criminal possession of a weapon. He is expected to appear in court next month.
The make of the car – a Kia Sportage SUV – may be central to the case.
For months, Kia owners across the United States have been reporting the same problem: Their cars keep getting stolen by thieves using just a USB cord.
Police departments from New York to Los Angeles are growing increasingly concerned about the Kia thefts – which are spiking because of a vulnerability in earlier models that has been shared widely in social media videos, outlining exactly how to steal the vehicles in seconds.
Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said the teenagers in Monday’s crash may have been participating in the trend – though the department has not released evidence linking it to the theft.
Buffalo police did not immediately return a request for comment early Thursday.
Social media platforms say they are trying to contain the videos.
TikTok has said it “does not condone this behavior, which categorically violates our policies and will be removed if found on our platform.”
Articles on the trend and vulnerability also pop up at the top of Google search results.
Gramaglia said car crime in the area has risen 90% compared with this time last year, and there are “numerous cities across the country that are looking at looking into or have filed lawsuits against Kia because of the ease that they are able to steal these cars.”
Kia America acknowledged the issue in a statement Thursday, saying it is “concerned with the rise in vehicle thefts in certain areas” and is working on software to secure the targeted vehicles.
“Criminals are targeting vehicles equipped with a steel key and ‘turn-to-start’ ignition system as opposed to those equipped with a key fob and ‘push-button-to-start’ system,” the company said.
The statement adding that it is working closely with law enforcement officials “to provide steering wheel lock devices at no cost to concerned owners of steel key operated Kia vehicles not originally equipped with an immobilizer.”
Kia said its newer models are more secure.
“All 2022 models and trims have an immobilizer applied either at the beginning of the year or as a running change, and all Kia vehicles meet or exceed Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.”
Police in cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago say they are also battling increased car thefts amid the social media tutorials.
Police in Los Angeles said models of Kias and Hyundais manufactured between 2010 and 2021 were being targeted because they do not have an ignition immobilizer.
“The TikTok challenge is just basically teaching people how to do it,” said Roe Conn of the sheriff’s office in Cook County, Ill., which includes Chicago.
Many Kia owners who have fallen victim to the crime say their cars were stolen from right outside their homes.
In August, Kia owner Bettina Bausa told New Orleans news station WWL-TV that she was watching a movie at home when she heard someone outside attempting to steal her 2013 Kia Optima.
Bausa managed to scare off the thief by banging on the window.
Her vehicle, which had a smashed window and evidence someone had tampered with the key-start ignition, had been targeted two nights in a row.
In Buffalo, victims of Monday’s car crash were later named by police as Marcus Webster, 19; Swazine Swindle, 17; Kevin Payne, 16; and Ahjanae Harper, 14, who has a child.
“This is a terrible, terrible outcome for such young kids that had their entire lives in front of them,” Gramaglia said.
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