Do car rental companies make it too hard to report pre-existing damage?

Question: Please help me with a bogus damage charge by Alamo. We picked up our car in Kona, Hawaii, at dusk and saw numerous small dents and dings and scratches on the vehicle. We couldn’t find a form to report the damage.

We asked the agent where the form was and reported several areas that we were concerned about. We were advised that they no longer have that form and if there was damage “golf ball size or smaller” they don’t worry about it.

We told her that the car had several areas of concern, some larger than a golf ball, and then left.

When we returned the car two weeks later, they gave my husband an express incident report indicating damage to a passenger side panel. Although we explained that we had tried to report the damage, Alamo eventually sent us a notice saying that based on its investigation, “we must hold you contractually responsible for this loss.”

This seems so unfair! What should I do? — Renee Tyler, Loxahatchee, Fla.

Answer: You’re right, this one seems unfair. You did your best to report the damage, and the Alamo agent shouldn’t have shrugged off your attempts to report the dings and dents on your car.

First, though, let me commend you on your choice of vacation destination. Hawaii’s Big Island is one of The Travel Troubleshooter’s all-time favorite places, and he recently rented a car in Kona with exactly the same problem.

How did I get around it? I wrote a detailed description of the damage on the rental receipt, brought it back to the rental agent, and asked her to sign it. She did. I also took pictures of the rental car in order to document the numerous scratches on the minivan.

(Stay tuned to this site, by the way. I have a story coming up next week with a similar problem but a very different outcome.)

Had the agent refused to sign, I would have asked for another vehicle. It’s not that I demand a flawless car when I’m on assignment (I don’t) but I know too well the danger of being held responsible for pre-existing damage. And that’s unfair, as you correctly point out.

After you contacted me, I advised you to go through the proper channels with Alamo, disputing the charges and making your best case in writing. Although you did, Alamo insisted on charging you.

I think you could have avoided being broadsided by a claim, but that would have required buying Alamo’s optional insurance, which can double the cost of your rental, and represents a huge profit center to the auto rental industry.

I contacted Alamo on your behalf. It contacted you and said that after further review, it decided to close its claim. It apologized for “any inconvenience” it may have caused.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • backprop

    “We told her that the car had several areas of concern, some larger than a golf ball, and then left.”

    Huh? This doesn’t ring true to me. The OP detailed the conversation about reporting damage and asking for a form, and the agent’s reply about not worrying about a very specific size or smaller, and the (non-)availability of forms.

    Then armed with all that information – including the fact that the damage on the car was definitely in the reportable range – they simply left?

  • Blackadar

    Absolutely they do. I’ve had rental car agencies claim that they didn’t have such a form, it wasn’t in stock, no one was available to look at the damage with me, etc. At some point, you have to go about your business and can’t stay at the rental car agency forever. I’ve just taken pics, emailed them to my wife’s email for a time/date stamp and then gone about my merry way. The couple of times the rental agencies have tried to claim I’ve damaged the car, out came the pics and the dated email. That put an end to the discussion quickly.

  • Nica

    I always videotape or take pictures. This is beyond ridiculous with these rental cars. I am going to Blackadar’s idea as well… emailing it for time/date stamp. Great idea!

  • Michelle Norton

    It seems it would be the rental companies position that the more difficult it is to report pre-existing damage, the more likely the renter will ‘give up’ and assume possession of the vehicle and thus, the more likely that the rental company can charge for said damage and profit.
    It seems in this case, the OP knew enough to mention that there was damage, was concerned enough to make a couple of statements regarding the damage and this should have raised enough of a flag that they either asked for a new car, or gotten written documentation on the back of a McDonalds napkin if need be.

  • Kairho

    Every rental I’ve done in the past few years has had a copy of a damage report stapled to the contract with most damage already noted. In two cases I saw additional small problems, noted it on my copy and then someone signed it. No problems upon return.

  • tio2girl

    If you’re not a savvy traveler, sure you just leave. You trust that the person in charge is being honest with you, you might be tired from a long day (or days) of travel, and you go. Before reading this blog, it never would have occurred to me to even check a car for dings before leaving with it. The onus is on the traveler to report problems and go the extra mile, but most travelers aren’t aware of that – and this is especially true if an employee has told you it’s not a problem.

  • Raven_Altosk

    This was a scam, pure and simple. Glad it worked out in the end for the OP. I also hope Alamo enjoys the bad press here. They certainly deserve it.

  • flip44

    Just as you pack a toothbrush and other necessities, the new ‘must’ is an inexpensive digital camera, especially, as you point out, to shoot pix of a rental car. There are also cheap disposable cameras: scan the prints to your computer for file and storage to send by email when needed.
    “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

  • RITom

    On one rental i was not given one, when asked they were not pleased to hand it out. I noted everything (and then some, since they do not check it). I have been told to be as general as possible when noting scratches, by a former employee. Also taking pictures of a little scratch does not show up on most cameras. When renting from Sixt they sent me a $1800 bill for damage. They did not log me in or out of the lot. When i sent them a photo a the damage they did not even ask for a date stamp.

  • Michael__K

    How many people reading this would have refused to believe the OP’s claim that there was no form to report damage if not for the remarkable coincidence that Chris recently rented a vehicle from the exact same location and experienced the same issue?

    Not every renter is as paranoid as they would be if they regularly followed this site. There was a time when I might have been trustful enough to think that remembering the name of the agent who told me there was no written form and who I alerted to the pre-existing damage would have been enough.

  • plodder

    Not savvy is different than falling off the turnip truck. How many stories like this have to make the news?

  • plodder

    If you’re on vacation you probably have a camera. If you have a smart phone you have a camera. They just sound lazy.

  • tio2girl

    Actually, outside of this blog, I’ve never seen ANY stories like this in the media. Not everyone is an avid reader of travel advocate blogs.

  • User921394932

    Just call the 800 number and report it, I’ve reported damage the next day, it was pitch black when I got the car, and couldn’t see the damage, and in Kona as well, and they were able to take the information over the phone, I wasn’t charged for anything.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Agreed. Its about being a savvy traveler, which is unfortunate. When I rent a car and I see damage, I know to demand to fill out a form. When I get the usual BS about the damage not being worth reporting I have my ready reply, “Yes, but I would feel more comfotable filling out the form”. As an experienced traveler I know that scam and have already determined an effective response.
    I remember Hertz once tried to give me a beater car. I told the agent point blank, I thought the car had been in an accident and that whoever took the car was going to be in litigation with Hertz and I didn’t really want that much grief. I made them change it and give me a disount for my troubles.
    The unfortunatel truth is that most people don’t want to make waves and can be implicitly bullied into acquiescence. The Joe Farrells and Ravens of the world are the exception. Its easy to say in a blog how we wouldn’t never accept such and such treatment, But in real life that’s much harder for most people.

  • Joe Farrell

    Ways to avoid car rental problems:

    Photographs with a date stamp. You cannot tell me that people on vacation do not have a camera with which to take photos of the damage with a boarding pass or the contract right next to it – or clock in the background. Are people truly that slow witted that the thought of a photograph using a cell phone or camera that they brought for their vacation never comes to mind?

    The pre-ex damage form.

    As Chris notes- write it on the contract.

    The airline boarding pass may have sufficient space – especially if you printed it out:

    Sign up for their frequent renter program

    AFTER it happens:

    Dispute the damage

    Dispute the claim

    ASK for PROOF of repair. If they charge you for repair then they must know what it costs –

    Ask for their 2 or 3 estimates

    finally, if they see loss of use – ask them to prove the loss of use – they can’t do that. Trust me – that claim is never paid by insurance companies because they must prove not that they rented all their cars – but that they turned people away.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    Something that’s always confused me about these episodes is: Why does the rental agency not go after the person/renter who actually committed the damage? Why do they wait days, weeks, months and, generally, apply it to someone who had nothing to do with it? Is it a matter of someone’s refusal to pay so they just keep tagging people until one sticks?

    And if these are legitimate damage claims, as the agencies seem to imply, why do they simply give up the moment someone like Chris is involved? Forgive me, but, if someone has damaged my car, I’m not giving up until it’s fixed. I don’t just shrug my shoulders and say, “Oh, well, my mistake”.

  • Joe Farrell

    U R right Carver – I fail all of the agreeableness answers on personality profiles and tests I took for corporate America- scored highly everywhere else except agreeableness –

    Scores showed I need to be a:

    Trial Lawyer [96.2%] or a

    Combat Fighter Pilot [95%]

    or an Architect – which at 85%was the next closest -its amazing how accurate those things can be . . .

  • reasonedthought

    How do you know that they haven’t gone after them as well. This is the gift that keeps on giving, or at least potentially. There is no legal requirement for them to repair the car after billing you for the damage so it is possible that they bill as many customers as possible for the damage.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    Isn’t that what I said in the end? But, yeah, you’re right. I sounds better when you say it.

  • lost_in_travel

    So are you an architect? I had never thought of architects as being disagreeable.

  • lost_in_travel

    I was taking pictures of a rental in California while the agent told me that they never fuss about the scratches and small dings that were all over the car — I just said that on the East Coast they do, so I kept taking photos. She recognized me when I brought the car back and said nothing about the scratches, never was sure if it was because they were documented or because they really would not have been a problem.

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    They’re not required to actually repair the car. Estimates are sufficient

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    None. Every story that I have ever read about improper damage charges have been on travel blogs, forums, and the like.

  • judyserienagy

    Of course they make it difficult. It’s a good source of revenue … let the next renter pay for the damages. If you notice damage when you pick up the car and don’t take photos of it, you’re out of luck. Having a conversation with the rental agent is about as helpful as talking to a tree unless something is put in photo/writing. Travellers have to take care of themselves, nobody else will.

  • judyserienagy

    Sending the photos via email is REALLY CLEVER! I’ve never had a damage claim from a rental car but this would certainly avoid problems.

  • LadyLightTravel

    Honest people actually believe others.

  • backprop

    The reason I raised the question was that she DID know to ask for a form. And not only that, but the staff effectively told her that she had to report anything larger than a golf ball – and there WERE holes larger than a golf ball by the OP’s own statement.

    Who would just drive off after hearing that??

  • Joe Farrell

    that’s funny – they say you have 6 degrees of evaluation on some of these tests – I guess when I hit 85% it was that I was good in every category for architect except for 2 – agreeableness and talent . . .

  • backprop

    Fools believe everything they hear without question.

  • Joe Farrell

    yeah, thats true – but I said if they CHARGE you for repair – not if they repaired the car . . .

  • Joe Farrell

    one last point – if they charge you for damage – ask for the parts! The reason here is that if damage is more than a couple of days old you see oxidation and other evidence of deterioriation in the damaged area. Unless you rented the vehicle for a month . . ..these will not be present.

    The other issue in the loss of use claim is the amount of time that elapses – if they charge me for loss of use I want to know how long it took for repair, why it took that long and show me a photo of the repair with a time and date stamp and some identifying mark its the same white Camry that got fixed . . . license plates are not enough.

    If you start asking enough questions most of the time they’ll go away because if they make a claim that is later discovered to be bogus or unenforceable because they cannot prove the essential elements of the claim – it casts alot of doubt on the rest of the claim as well.

    I know that 99.5% of the world is alot more trusting of people than lawyers – but I graudated from law school in 1985 – and I’ve lied to be everyone, both my clients and the ‘other side,’ for 27 years.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I agree with the several posters who have stated that if it were not for this and other travel forums, they would not have known to either ask for a form or to take pictures. My husband, father-in-law, younger son and daughter-in-law did not know. My son called to thank me after a trip for my advice on documenting damage to a rental. What I do is to ask for an employee to help me document damage. Of course, one is never available. I ask for a form; sometimes one is not available, whereupon I ask if I can document damage on the contract and have them initial or sign. I tell them I’m taking pictures, and I do. Then when I return the rental, I also take pictures. One rental facility decided to crawl all over the car when I came back. I sweetly asked if they wanted to see the “before” pictures for comparison. They declined and they signed my form saying “no damage”.
    My son and d-i-l rented a car out of Sea-Tac using some corporate discount, so it had to be Hertz or Alamo. My son did exactly as I recommended he do, with my d-i-l protesting that he was wasting valuable vacation time. When he brought back the car, they decided a scratch was his fault and wanted to charge his credit card for the repair. He brought out the contract on which he’d noted that damage and they’d signed, and also offered to show them pictures. They backed down and apologized for their “mistake”.
    Moral: he wouldn’t have known to document problems if it hadn’t been for me reading this and other travel forums. And my d-i-l doesn’t think me to be as crazy as she had thought. :)

  • Michael__K

    She reported it verbally to the rental agent who told her there were no forms to report the damage in writing.

    You mean we shouldn’t trust rental company employees?

  • Daddydo

    You answered the problem in your column quite properly. 1) take pics 2) Write it on the contract if there is no form and have it signed! Most travelers are in too big of a hurry to get out from under the tyranny of the airlines, so they get quite stupid by the time that they reach the rental cars. In 55 years of travel, I have the most complaints on vacations aimed at rental cars.
    Last month, I tried something quite different. I rented from Payless at Seattle airport, the cheapest car company I could find for an Intermediate size car. They were cheaper by $250.00 a week. I got there, waited 5 minutes for my turn, signed the paperwork in another 5 minutes, took the airport bus to the rental, got the car in 2 minutes…a 2012 Fusion SEL with 3500 miles and every button known to mankind, checked the car…perfect, drove 500 miles, returned the car in 3 minutes; it was the best rental in 2000 rentals. The name of the company does not reflect better service and they were by far the most corteous rental company that I have worked with.

  • backprop

    He He He. You’re right though, they put her into a no-win (I originally read it as they were ‘out’ of the form).

    We were advised that they no longer have that form and if there was damage “golf ball size or smaller” they don’t worry about it

    So about the damage that is larger than a golf ball, they should “worry about it,” even according to the agent. And the OP just drove away. Seems like she was just a hair away from demanding, “Well, write it down somewhere!” but chose to drive away instead.

  • Miami510

    I don’t rent cars often… and after reading the stories on
    this Website, I was particularly cautious when renting a car in Park City, Utah
    recently. The system to make rentals
    easy for their special card holders, is to post the renter’s name on an electronic
    sign board and give the garage location for the car.

    All one has to do is get in, drive to the exit, where an
    employee takes the paperwork left in the car, have the renter sign, and one
    drives away.

    I inspected the car which had only a few hundred miles on
    it, and found no problem… although I was prepared with my digital camera. At that point, it is the exit from the
    garage…far from the administrative offices/desk.

    When I drove back, I was met by an employee with a hand-held
    PDA who scanned the vehicle bar code, punched in some numbers, and handed me a
    receipt. I asked her to look at the car
    and acknowledge that there was no damage.
    She said, “Oh, someone else does that later.”

    It’s been a few weeks and I haven’t heard anything. WHAT IF…..? What if I were to receive a bill
    for dents or scratches? There ought to
    be some receipt or acknowledgement that the car was returned in good condition
    given at the time it was returned.

  • Miami510

    RE: Post Exploration TravMag:
    Perhaps a dishonest rental agency gets to double… or tripple dip on a single dent. Charge the first renter…. don’t fix it…. charge the next renter who accepts the car without checking…. etc. etc.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Awesome for you. But I can’t help thinking you got extremely lucky. Reporting damages the next day after the car’s been in your possession would more typically beg the questions “Why didn’t you report it before taking the car?” and “How do we know you didn’t cause the damages?”

  • Linda Duncan-Jordan

    I rented from Budget in June and the car only had 400 mils on it and was new. However, there were some dings and scratches and I took photos (time and date stamped) of all of them. When I went to leave with the car I had noted all the damage no matter how minute. I stopped at the exiting kiosk and got out and asked the attendant to look as well and initial my comments. He said not to worry about the little scratches as they were expected. I would not take no for an answer and insisted he sign and initial, which he reluctantly did for me. I also made sure his name tag was the same as his signature. You just can’t be to careful anymore! I also keep my rental contract’s filed for a year because you just never know!!

  • JimDavisHouston

    I run into this all the time. I simply list the damage on my copy of the contract, and have an employee sign it before I leave.

  • Michelle C

    Yes they make it too hard. I take plenty of pictures or video even if they sign the preexisting damage form, but most of the time I get “we don’t care if it is smaller than (fill in blank).” To me the documentation is the best thing I can do to protect myself. I make sure the see me taking plenty of pictures or video too.

  • Michelle C

    I always take pics or video but I will be emailing it to myself from now on.

  • Cybrsk8r

    That’s a great idea about writing up a description of the damage and having the agent sign it. I think a pad of paper might become part of my standard packing procedure. I rented a car just this week in Omaha, NE that looked like it had been beat on with a ball-peen hammer, but since it didn’t rain during my stay, it would be pretty hard for them to nail me for hail damage.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Gives a whole new meaning to “Remember the Alamo”.

  • Bill___A

    I would never leave with a damaged car and not have some documentation. I’ve not encountered the missing form issue, but I think that the car rental company should already document the damage on that form. It wastes my time to go around and look at all of the damage and then document it.

  • joie

    From what I have been told by branches (I work Roadside Assistance for a major rental company), they usually have a 12-24 hour grace period. It really is up to the managers on site. Usually if we get a call during the first day of the rental (especially if the customer picked up the vehicle @ night) and the damage is very minor (scratches or a dent that got overlooked), we will just note the account. I usually have the customer describe exact locations and sizes of everything for the notes, that way the branch can tell if they got larger/banged up again.

  • Dave Lieberman

    Anyone who expects a perfect rental car should never rent a car in Mexico.

  • xsquatchx

    i firmly believe that enterprise gets most of its income from jacking customers for damage charges and then NOT fixing said damage. i feel that they are the worst at this tactic and i refuse to ever give them another penny