Popular bejeweled car decoration is shutting down car engines; watch it happen

ByMichael Finney KGO logo
Wednesday, June 14, 2023
7 On Your Side shows popular 'bling ring' shutting down car engine
You wouldn't think a small jeweled sticker could have any effect on a car's engine -- but it brought one Lake County woman's car to a screeching halt.

LAKE COUNTY, Calif. -- The old days of fuzzy dice on your rear view mirror are giving way to a growing fad -- sparkling decals to decorate a steering wheel, cup holder, armrest -- anything inside a car. One viewer has been decorating her car with rhinestones for years -- until one small decal brought everything to a screeching halt.

You would never think a sticker just larger than a quarter could have any effect on a car's engine. And yet, that's exactly what happened -- not only to this viewer, but to possibly thousands of other drivers who bought one. 7 On Your Side had to find out what's going on.

Shiffra Steele's old SUV has a lot of bling inside.

"Steering wheel cover, iPhone mount, little clips," Steele said.

Even her license plate is wrapped in rhinestones. Then recently, she found a new type of decoration on Amazon called a "bling ring."

"I just saw this and thought, well, that's cool. It goes around your ignition and that would be a really fun thing. And so I ordered it," Steele said.

It was a small ring, studded with sparkling rhinestones, that fit around a car's ignition.

"It's cute, you stick it on your car... they're just fun. I like blingy things," Steele said.

She stuck it on, went to bed, and the next morning, set out in her car.

Or tried to.

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Steele''s car wouldn't start, and she had no idea why. So she recharged the battery. Nothing happened.

"Then I called my neighbor, he couldn't get it started," she said.

So Steele had the car towed to a mechanic.

"He had the car for about four days and he couldn't figure it out," Steele said.

So she had the car towed again -- this time all the way to a dealer in Ukiah. No one could find the problem.

"They had locksmiths there, they tried all of their troubleshooting and nothing worked," she said.

Then in passing, Steele mentioned that "bling ring" on the ignition -- and bingo.

"He said, 'Oh, we've seen that before,'" Steele said.

The mechanic simply peeled off the bling ring -- and presto. The car started right up.

So what's going on?

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Steve Sacco is a locksmith in Arizona who sees this happen often, and wrote articles about why a little sticker can disable a big car.

"Certain members of our society like to decorate their vehicles," Sacco said. "If the bling ring is around the ignition, guess what? The signal can't get past that ring. So the car won't start."

He says it's all because of the anti-theft system in most of today's cars.

Here's how it works:

The car key in most of today's cars contains a transponder that sends a radio signal to the car's anti-theft system. If it's the correct key, the system lets the car stars and you drive off.

However, the "bling ring" has a metal backing.

If you put the sticker over the ignition, the metal blocks the radio signal. (RFID) The anti-theft system determines someone is stealing the car, and it shuts down the engine.

7 On Your Side's Michael Finney tried it out himself.

"So, can this little piece of bling actually disable a car?" Finney asked.

First, he started our car without the bling ring.

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"Starts just fine, no problem at all. Let's apply this," Finney said, holding the decal.

Then Finney stuck the bling right over the ignition.

"Looks pretty good," Finney said. "Now the big test."

The car engine starts to turn, but shuts down.

"It starts, kinda sorta, then it dies," Finney said.

It happens again, and again.

Sacco, the Arizona locksmith, said he hears from many customers who spend days trying to diagnose their car's malfunction, and are stunned to find out the little sticker is the culprit.

"Someone will say, 'Oh it's just a sticker, just a decorative thing just a few jewels - it's just not a good thing to put on your car. The car won't start," Sacco said.

"It's ridiculous, who would think that?" Steele said.

She wishes she'd known about this flaw before spending hundreds of dollars on mechanics and tow trucks.

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"I was without a car for 12 days, my car was towed twice, I had to get a ride to the Ukiah dealer..." she said. None of the other bling in her car had ever caused a problem.

Amazon does have a warning on the website about the Bling Ring, but it's buried in small print. It says: "Please do not apply to car ignition if your car has anti-theft alarm. It messes with the electrical system..."

"What's the point, just don't sell it," Steele said. She noted that most every car built in the past two decades has an anti-theft device, so the decal is likely to interfere.

Steele wanted Amazon to pay her mechanic's bills, which ran hundreds of dollars, but the company did not respond. Amazon thanked us for reporting this problem but said it would not have any statement. And the product? It's still selling on many websites -- and the price went up by a buck.

Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.

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