Recently I started hearing more and more reports of people’s cars being stolen in North Carolina. My curiosity was further piqued as two fellow John Locke Foundation employees had their vehicles stolen just in the last month.

It turns out, there is much more than anecdotal evidence suggesting a surge in car thefts in 2023 compared to 2022.

In a February article on ABC-11, it quotes a woman in northwest Raleigh saying, “It’s disturbing” how many cars are getting stolen in her neighborhood. In the first few weeks of 2023, 43 cars had been stolen in her police district, compared with 12 at the same point the year before.

When asked for an explanation for the spike, the Raleigh police indicated to ABC-11 that “people are becoming a victim of car theft because some drivers are leaving cars running and unattended.”

In Charlotte, they’re seeing much the same. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department says car theft is the top contributor to rising crime in North Carolina’s largest city, rising 99% in the first quarter of 2023. In 2022, there were 738 auto thefts after the first quarter of the year, and in the first quarter of 2023, there have been 1,468.

Like in Raleigh, the Charlotte police pointed, not to rising lawlessness among the population, but to external factors — in this case, a challenge on the social media platform TikTok that encouraged people to steal cars, specifically Kias and Hyundais.

There has also been a rise in brazen heists at car dealerships across the state. Over $1 million worth of vehicles were taken just between Feb. 19 and March 13 in four well-planned heists targetingfd dealerships in Lexington, Charlotte, Cornelius, and Hickory.

As the state’s top cop, how has Attorney General Josh Stein addressed this rise in car theft across the state and in our major cities? Going through his public statements, I could only find one press release so far in 2023 on the rise in auto theft. And that press release specifically scapegoats Kia and Hyundai for not having enough anti-theft protections in their new vehicles, specifically an immobilizer that most cars now have.

He also mentions the Steal-a-Kia/Hyundai TikTok challenge as contributing, saying, “The rise in thefts has also been connected to a viral TikTok challenge that shows people how to use a USB cable to start Kias and Hyundais without a key.”

This week in Cary, which isn’t a city known for crime, four hotel were also hit by thieves. While they didn’t steal the cars themselves, dozens of cars had their windows smashed and items stolen from inside. The Cary police said if people really have to go to an event or a hotel, they should put all items out of site and park in a well-lit area near a building.

Who’s really to blame?

Rather than blame TikTok, Korean car companies, or people who leave their car running in the winter or with valuables visible, why not blame those who choose to break into the cars?

It’s always wise to lock your home and put a security system in place, but there are many neighborhoods safe enough to where people leave their doors unlocked and know they can trust their neighbors to both not steal from them and to keep an eye out. If the homes started being targeted, it wouldn’t make sense to blame the homeowners or homebuilders for not having enough security in place.

In my neighborhood, many people do leave their cars running in the winter as they get ready. Somehow, even though I have every opportunity to, I have managed to restrain myself from stealing any of them.

The question is, why are so many young people so easily influenced by nonsense on TikTok or other social media platforms to such a degree that they would steal cars, and risk years behind bars, to complete a “challenge”?

It seems like a sort of “gamification” of life as they spend more and more of their time online, whether it’s playing video games, browsing social media, or being otherwise involved in virtual worlds. When that virtual gamified world blends with the real world, there apparently can be crazy consequences. Other thefts, like the dealership heists, are likely just organized crime.

Whatever else explains the rise in car theft — whether social media, poor security, or organized crime — the underlying culprit is lawlessness. And that can’t be fixed by scolding car companies or writing press releases, as it’s a deeper symptom of the general social decay that’s also leading to spiking homicide rates, drug-overdose deaths, mental health diagnoses, and homelessness.