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Courtney Warnett was just settling down to sleep at her boyfriend’s house in Wilmington one night in September when he got a text from a neighbor.
Someone had been seen trying to break into Warnett’s 2015 Hyundai Elantra. The cops were on the way.
Warnett hustled out of bed and rushed outside, only to find the front window shattered, and the steering column damaged. Thieves had tried to start the white Hyundai but hit a snag and took off.
“You just feel really vulnerable, like it’s not your space anymore,’’ recalled Warnett, a medical assistant for an orthopedic practice. “Especially because it’s someone you don’t know that was in your car.”
Warnett also learned from city cops that the crime was part of a nationwide and local spike in motor vehicle thefts that has been fueled by social media posts about the ease of stealing some Hyundai and Kia models. One series of videos follows the so-called ‘Kia Boys,’ a loose affiliation of car thieves in Milwaukee.
In Delaware this year, the state’s three largest police agencies — Delaware State, New Castle County and Wilmington — have investigated nearly 1,500 thefts and attempted thefts this year — an average of more than five a day. All three agencies have experienced a sharp rise in cases.
In New Castle County alone, police said thieves have already targeted nearly 600 vehicles this year, more than double the pace of 2002. About 250 of the vehicles have been Kias or Hyundais, and most of the people arrested are boys ages 14 to 18.
Det. Joshua Willis of the New Castle County police says the volume is overwhelming the agency’s ability to investigate the thefts, which are handled by him and another detective who also handles fraud cases.
“We’ve kind of seen a giant jump with this new Kia-Hyundai trend come across on Instagram, YouTube, TikTok,’’ he said, noting that certain models can be started with one end of a USB cable after the steering column is pried open.
“A lot of it is joy riding, honestly. I think it’s just a matter of seeing how many they can do and then they’ll kind of post it on Instagram as a kind of clout or like, ‘Look what I can do. Cops can’t touch me’ kind of thing.”
The kids aren’t off base with their perception. Most auto thieves don’t get caught, and when they do, the charge is usually receiving stolen property, a low-level felony or misdemeanor with no mandatory prison time.
For juveniles, “the max penalty they’re looking at is like a six-month stay’’ in the New Castle County Detention Center for juvenile offenders. “They’ll tell us that in interviews. We’ll hear that on phone conversations if we have a search warrant for that kind of thing. They know what they’re looking at and it’s not typically until they turn into an adult that they know there’s a real consequence.”
Attorney General Kathy Jennings, whose prosecutors take those arrested to court, said “nothing is off the table’’ as far as her office’s plans to tackle the subject.
Jennings did not provide specifics but said, “This is a serious public safety issue and we are laser focused on how to get out ahead of it, including by holding Kia and Hyundai accountable to their responsibilities to consumers.”
Victim says ‘it cause me an excess amount of anxiety’
In Wilmington, where so far there’s been 414 thefts and attempts this year, compared with 283 for the same period in 2022, the city has cops on overtime assignments “to supplement patrols and increase police presence in affected neighborhoods,’’ police spokesman David Karas said.
Karas stressed that city police “will continue to dedicate resources to address this trend.” He said they’re reminding owners not to keep unattended vehicles running, not to keep spare keys in the car, to lock their vehicles, and “to report any suspicious activity – including subjects checking car door handles.”
Cpl. Amina Ali of the state police had an additional tip for car owners.
“We encourage everyone with a surveillance security system at their home to include their vehicles in the angle of the camera,’’ Ali said.
To help those vehicles affected by the social media trend, in recent months city and county police have given away nearly 1,000 steering wheel locks.
Warnett, who recently got her car fixed after paying a $500 deductible, said her Hyundai dealer has agreed to install a free immobilization device next month.
“That’s supposed to make it so your vehicle won’t start with this USB cable,’’ said Warnett, who said she’ll be reluctant to drive her Hyundai until then.
In the meantime, she’s reluctant to drive the car. “With feeling so violated it causes me an excess amount of anxiety,’’ she said. Even after it’s fixed, “you know, you still feel vulnerable because you know that make and model of your car is targeted.”
Warnett said police told her they have arrested a suspect in her attempted theft and another one on the same block where her boyfriend lives in the city’s Triangle neighborhood.
She has a message for the kid who tried to take her car.
“It’s not funny,’’ she said. “It does cause a lot of mental and emotional damage. You’re violating people’s hard-earned property. This is how they get to work. And this is like their livelihood that you guys are messing with for five-10 minutes of fun.”
Det. Willis says he tells kids to think about their future.
“Don’t throw your life away because you want to be cool for one second,’’ Willis said.
Beyond the financial toll, “it could be their only means of getting around to and from work,’’ he said. “Try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes outside of just what you’re doing in the moment.”