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Repair bill for scratch on car's roof: $600

  • Published Friday, Sep. 3, 2010, at 11:38 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Sep. 5, 2010, at 12:03 a.m.

Q: I hope you can help me with a dubious repair bill I received. I rented a car from Enterprise in Newark recently, and we did a cursory walk-around inspection with the agent in the rain.

The agent did not mark the "no damage" box on the contract, but I did not see any damage, either. When I returned the car three weeks later in Manhattan, the Enterprise employee did not tell us there was damage, but a supervisor told me there was a scratch on the roof. I couldn't see it until I opened the car door and stood on the sill.

I told the supervisor I had never been asked to check the roof on a rental car, and that the Newark agent had not asked me to. The supervisor said she "agreed with me" regarding the agent error and would ask her regional manager to help us out. We were promised a call back within 48 hours. No one called.

We got a bill for $600, including three days of loss-of-use and eight hours of repair work for something that definitely does not need to be fixed, and that we did not cause. When I asked for documentation, the recovery agent sent me pictures of long, wide scratches on two different cars, not the car we returned. This is truly an attempt to rip off the customer!— Sandy Lamke, Mill Valley, Calif.

A: That must have been some scratch on the roof! When the Enterprise supervisor discovered the damage, you would have been asked to sign a form acknowledging the scratch and agreeing to pay for it. After that, the car rental company should have sent you a repair bill and documentation, including a photo of the car. Not any car.

You were correct to be skeptical of the $600 repair bill when it was apparently done to another car. Based on what you told me about the damage, I think the bill you received was a little high, if not entirely unwarranted. Also, the supervisor gave you a reason to think the scratch existed before you rented the car. The wrong-car photo only reinforced your belief that the bill was bogus.

These frivolous damage claims are nothing new to the car rental industry. Sometimes, I think car rental companies aren't even in the business of renting cars, but of making money from damage claims. Interestingly, before they're rented, several car rental firms have begun photographing their cars, which should dramatically cut back on the number of wrongful claims by car rental companies.

I like the way you handled the initial problem. Speaking with a supervisor is the best way of getting your bill adjusted. If Enterprise had followed up with a promised call, you might be free and clear now. I'm not entirely sure why it didn't phone you back.

When the bill arrived, you had a few options. A polite dispute (clearly, if someone had taken the time to carefully consider your claim, it would have probably been dismissed) and if that didn't work, then an appeal to Enterprise at the corporate level with copies to the insurance commissioner in the state the car was rented in, might have worked. As a last-ditch effort, you could have disputed your credit card bill or taken Enterprise to small claims court to recover the $600 you would have been charged.

Fortunately, it never came to that. I contacted Enterprise on your behalf, and it dropped its claim.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org, or e-mail him at celliott@ngs.org.

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