Editor’s Note: This press conference was livestreamed on this page at approximately 12:30 p.m. A full video will be available shortly.
ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Over the past five months, roughly 1,400 Kias and Hyundais have been stolen in Monroe County, and local leaders are placing the blame not only on a social media trend from TikTok, but on the company itself.
Congressman Joe Morelle said Tuesday afternoon that he and other county, city, and law enforcement officials will be trying to hold the social media platform accountable.
As early as last summer, a TikTok trend exploiting security flaws in certain cars gained national media attention. As the trend grew, it slowly reached and massively increased thefts in the Rochester area.
Speakers Tuesday argues that nationally, TikTok has refused to step in to quell the surge in car thefts.
“Think about it: A how-to video on how to steal a car,” Morelle said. “I mean, it’s beyond troubling. Here, you have a company who has guidelines that suggests they’ll remove those videos, and they’re doing nothing about it.”
Morelle cited that from January 1 to March 21, 775 car thefts have occurred within city limits. Over 500 of those cars have been Kias and Hyundais, RPD Chief David Smoth said.
In the past five months — excluding the city of Rochester — Monroe County had 1,300 stolen cars. Around 900 of those were Kias and Hyundais, according to Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter.
“This is, in my mind, astonishing. We’ve double, triple checked that with the folks behind me,” Morelle said, referencing the law enforcement officers standing at the podium with him. “We have to acknowledge the role TikTok itself plays in perpetuating these crimes, and the role they could and should play in preventing them.”
Despite several requests from officials in Rochester and elsewhere, Morelle and other leaders said that TikTok has not agreed to do anything about the concerning content.
Baxter highlighted the impact this has on families who now no longer have their cars — pointing to missed work, missed appointments, wasted law enforcement time, and other major inconveniences. Later in the conference, Morelle added about the negative impact this has on not only an individual’s immediate life, but how they view and interact with their community.
“That’s chaos,” Baxter said. “We believe in the first amendment, freedom of speech but […] this is a straight threat to our community. TikTok refuses our request to just pull these videos as quick as possible. Police your own. It’s endangering the members of our community, and that’s unacceptable.”
All leaders highlighted that law enforcement will continue to prosecute those caught stealing vehicles, but added that there needs to be a multi-pronged approach.
“Everyone, not just youth, everyone in our culture — they’re buried in their phones,” Smith said. “They’re buried in their screens, their screen is their world. And when this is what they’re seeing, all of the sudden it becomes acceptable. It becomes the norm.”
Just last night, five stolen vehicles — Kias and Hyundais — were crashed into area businesses, Smith said.
“At least [Hyundai and Kia] had the good sense to pay for the steering wheel locking devices,” City of Rochester Mayor Malik Evans said. “So now the question is: Tik Tok, what are you going to do?”
To combat the issue, manufacturers Hyundai and Kia distributed steering wheel locks to law enforcement agencies to help prevent theft. However, this method is not completely effective, as the locks can be destroyed with equipment such as bolt cutters.
“We want peace in our streets, but TikTok has to take responsibility for those videos,” Evans said.
He highlighted the difference in American versus Chinese TikTok, saying that in China (where the company is located), TikTok is much more positive, insinuating that the company does have the infrastructure to take down harmful videos, and does so in at least one other country.
“At a federal level, TikTok is facing real challenges, and they’re really going to need to take responsibility for what we’re doing,” Morelle said, adding that the app is completely banned from federal devices.
In October, several teens in Buffalo driving a stolen Kia died in a crash potentially linked to the trend.