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Christopher Elliott: Car rental return like scam

  • Published Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011, at 12:07 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011, at 9:07 a.m.

We drove on some dirt roads, so the car was quite dusty when we returned it, and the representative eagerly went around the car like Sherlock Holmes looking for clues. She found a small scratch on the left rear bumper, which appeared to be possibly from someone backing into us, as we knew it wasn't done by our usage.

Before one could blink, we were hauled over to the processing office and our $256 bill jumped to $772 — of course, taken from our credit card without our authorization. Trying to get through to the rep assigned to handle our claim is impossible as she never is available on the phone. But her assistant was very helpful in informing us that the bill for repairing what even he admitted from the photos was a small, quite insignificant flaw was more than $500.

When I challenged him on how in the world a small dent could cost $440 he said actually anything under a thousand from a shop is a bargain.

This is a total preplanned scam, and the way the check-in rep went over ever square inch of the car with such enthusiasm there is little doubt these folks are being cut in for finding things wrong with the cars.

We are reasonable people and understand that even if someone backed into us if there was a small scratch we would be willing to pay a small amount to cover what is fair for repairing it. But more than $500, including an "administrative fee" is totally unacceptable.— Carri Schoeller, Orlando, Fla.

A: Your suspicions are understandable. Why would one employee wave you off, while another one goes over the car with a fine-tooth comb? And why deduct the $500 from your credit card immediately when the full repair costs aren't known yet? Whatever happened to the damage estimate? Weren't you entitled to receive a repair bill, detailing the work that had been done on your rental?

Unfortunately, your case is becoming all too common. Car rental companies don't even wait for the paperwork. If there's damage to your car, they charge you right away. Never mind procedure.

But there are three things about your story that I find troubling, and that Enterprise had nothing to do with. First, you found scratches on the car. Why didn't you note them on your rental agreement? Talk is cheap. You can almost be guaranteed that the person checking you in won't be handling your return.

Take pictures of your rental car and note all damage, no matter how small the dings, chips and scratches.

Second, did you say you'd gone off-roading in your rental? Most car rental agreements forbid drivers from taking their cars on an unpaved road. Even if they don't, it's a good idea to stay away from dirt roads in a rental car.

Finally, and perhaps most problematic, is that you agree that damage happened to your car while it was in your possession, though not by your usage. If the car was dented when you had it, you're responsible.

I think both parties made mistakes, but I wanted Enterprise to take another look at this damage claim. It did, and notified you that it had dropped the claim and refunded the $500.

Christopher Elliott is the author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at chris@elliott.org. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.

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