norcal roadWhen Steven Price returned his rental minivan to Fox Rent A Car in San Jose, Calif., recently, an agent claimed he “put a scratch on the bumper” and the company eventually tried to bill him $520 for repairs.

“I realize now that I never signed a check out slip stating the condition of the vehicle when I checked it out,” he says. “I was not in a wreck — the car was not damaged at all when I had it.”

And here’s a question I get a lot from readers: Now that Price has refused to pay the $520, and Fox has turned the matter over to a collection agency, is there anything he can do?

Yes, there is.

I recently helped another car rental in a similar situation deal with what he considered to be a bogus claim. Hal Wechter rented a car from Enterprise in Florida, and after he returned it, the company sent him a bill for damages. I recommended that he send a brief, polite email back to Enterprise, denying that he damaged the vehicle and requesting more detailed documentation. Here’s what he sent:

Please be advised that during the entire rental period no damage was done to the car, nor was any damage brought to our attention at the time of return. You may also note that your representative brought my wife back to our car in the vehicle in question and the vehicle demonstrated no signs of damage. I will be more than happy to review this matter further if you can produce the following:

1. Proof that the vehicle was damaged while it was in our possession. That would include pictures of the car that are time-stamped before and after that show the damage.

2. Documentation of any loss of use.

3. A contact for the repair shop, so our attorney can speak with them directly.

4. Any documents signed by us acknowledging any damage to the car when returned.

A car rental business with a legitimate claim should send these documents with the original damage bill. And if it doesn’t, it should send them on request.

Enterprise promised the documents within a few days. When it failed to produce them, Wechter send another letter. This time, he copied Florida’s insurance commissioner, underscoring the seriousness of the matter.

We are in receipt of your letter dated September 2, 2009 as a final notice with regard to the above subject claim. Please be advised that we still have not received the information requested of Enterprise in our correspondence of September 2, 2009 which was to be delivered by Friday September 4th as per your email below. Please advise on the status of our dispute and when we can expect the information requested.

Meanwhile, Florida’s insurance commissioner chimed in with an email to all parties:

Dear Mr. Wechter:

On behalf of Commissioner McCarty, thank you for the courtesy copy of your email to Ms. Patrick regarding her claim.

Should you need any assistance, you may contact the Department of Financial Services, Division of Consumer Services at toll free 877-693-5236 (in Florida), 850-413-3089 (outside of Florida), or by visiting www.myfloridacfo.com.

If the Office of Insurance Regulation can be of any assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us.

This response likely made Enterprise’s damage claims department think long and hard about the case against Wechter. If it proceeded, it would need to have a watertight case. Enterprise finally sent Wechter a document, but it didn’t prove anything. A few days later, I got a note from him: “We won the battle,” he reported.

Of course, all of this could have been avoided by taking just a few precautionary steps, as I’ve outlined in a previous post. It’s also worth noting that car rental companies are trying to fix the problem of inadequate documentation, which is laudable.

So to Price and any other car renters who feel they have a bogus bill, I say: Ask for the proof, and let the insurance commissioner in the state you rented the car in know about your predicament.

If the claim is bogus, you’ll have a good shot at winning.

(Photo: star5112/Flickr Creative Commons)