Ridiculous or not? Just ignore those dings and dents – your bill is in the mail

With all the recent stories about questionable damage claims on rental cars, it’s no surprise that motorists like Mike Weaver would insist on inspecting his vehicle before renting it. Or that he expects to note every ding and dent before he drives away.

If you’re not familiar with what some call the ding-and-dent scam, here’s a primer: You rent a car, and for whatever reason, pre-existing damage isn’t recorded in your contract. Maybe it’s a dark parking garage. Maybe you just don’t see it.

When you return the car, an associate gives it a thorough once-over, noting a scratch here, a nick there. You get a bill for just short of $500, which is the normal deductible on your car insurance. That way, the car rental company doesn’t have to deal with your nosy insurance company.

Pretty clever, huh?

Not nearly as clever as what Weaver says happened to him when he tried to rent from Enterprise in Citrus Heights, Calif., recently.

“When I pointed out damage to the car on the initial walk-around, the rep refused to circle any damage on the rental form,” says Weaver. “The rep said the only damage that concerned them was golf-ball size dents or larger. So something smaller than a golf ball that breaks the windshield, you’re not worried about?”

Weaver was so worried that Enterprise would charge him for the damage that he abandoned the rental transaction and took his business to another agency.

I asked Enterprise about Weaver’s case, and although it responded to my query immediately, it hasn’t answered my question about its damage policy yet. So I turned to the American Car Rental Association, the trade organization for the car rental industry, for help.

“There really is not a standard that every company follows as it relates to pre-existing damage,” says Bob Barton, the organization’s president. “Every company, however, does go through an inspection of the vehicle with the customer prior to departure and affords the customer the opportunity to point out any pre-existing damage that the rental agent has not identified.”

I can understand why a car rental company might be hesitant to record any prior damage. The forms that it uses are often small and don’t allow for a precise notations to be made. Any time I’ve pointed out a problem on my vehicle, it’s been with a rough “X” or checkmark. If, as a customer, I can use that sketch to get me off the hook for damages that I may be responsible for, then of course a car rental company would balk at using it.

The solution: Take pictures of your car, pre- and post-rental. In 2009, Hertz announced it would begin deploying such a system. I have asked the car rental company for details of its program on a regular basis since then, but despite promises of additional information, nothing has materialized. My last request went unanswered. I’m beginning to doubt the system exists. If that’s true, it would be a shame.

In the meantime, the only way to ensure you won’t get dinged for damage you didn’t cause is to either buy the car rental company’s overpriced and highly-profitable insurance, which can double the cost of your rental, or to take your own pictures. I would recommend snapping a few images with your cell phone, uploading them to Google or Flickr, and keeping them for at least six months after your rental.

Richard Takata wishes he had. He recently rented a car from Avis in Anchorage.

“I was told by an Avis representative that we were to do the pre-inspection of the vehicle and that if we saw any damage larger than a golf ball that were to come back to the counter and let them know,” he says.

He checked the car, which was parked in a dark garage, and couldn’t see any damage. When he returned the vehicle, he brought the keys back to the counter and asked the representative if she wanted to check the car, but was told he was “good to go,” he says.

“We received a damage claim letter from Avis saying we were responsible for a fist-size dent on the rear passenger-side door in the well area beneath the door handle,” he says. They charged $2,013 for the dent, which he passed along to his car insurance company.

But there’s so much about the claim that makes no sense to him, from the dimly-lit garage, which made a through inspection difficult, to the directions to ignore the minor damage, to the likely lag time between the key return and when the car would have been inspected. It just doesn’t add up.

“Definitely a lesson learned,” he says. “I will never rent from Avis again.”

Avis says Takata’s claim was handled by the book. (Here’s the final outcome, courtesy of the BBB.)

Update (8/17): Hertz sent me a note to deny its digital inspection system is bogus:

Hertz has been using digital inspections at its Newark and Philadelphia airport locations. The program has proven successful and we’re now evaluating rolling the system out to additional airports, with the next airport slated to receive the technology being Atlanta Hartsfield.

The system takes 40 pictures of a rental car, to give a 360-view of the car, at time of rental and return.

Customers are receptive to the detailed level of inspections the photos provide and both customers and Hertz are appreciative of the clarity the photos provide around damage claims.

Additionally, since our initial pilot, we’ve continued to test the technology advancements and are able to harness the system for other customer service issues, such as identifying lost and found items for customers.

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 chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

More Posts - Website - Twitter - Facebook - LinkedIn - Google Plus

  • Guest

    I note every scratch and photograph the entire car. Also, don’t forget to check all windows and lamps for chips. They can be extremely hard to see.

  • sirwired

    I would not have paid that bill to Avis in Alaska, or at least fought harder.  I simply don’t see how any rental agency can charge you a dime once they’ve handed you your receipt and expect those charges to “stick”.

  • Sweepergrl

    “Every company, however, does go through an inspection of the vehicle
    with the customer prior to departure and affords the customer the
    opportunity to point out any pre-existing damage that the rental agent
    has not identified.”

    Sorry Bob, but I call liar liar pants on fire. It seems that 90% of the problems happen with agents that have ‘pre-screened’ the car for damage. In the last 3 years of renting cars (averaging 4-5 cars a year) I have never had an agent walk around a car with me. All were at an airport location and in all but two cases, they were the only employee present. In fact, there were two occasions when there wasn’t even an employee present when I returned my car to their lot. I had a 0600 flight and didn’t have an option to return the car when an employee was present. All you can do is take lots and lots of pictures and hope for the best. I know that it’s hard for a camera to pick up little nicks, but it’s better than nothing.

  • Sam Varshavchik

    Taking a picture may not be a workable solution in all cases. You’re probably coming off a long flight. You are tired. Now you have to hold your cellphone steady, for a series of clear shots. Cellphone cameras aren’t exactly known for their quality, and a blurry picture will do you no good.

    The only practical solution is exactly what Mr. Weaver did. That’s exactly the right thing to do: a careful inspection, and a non-negotiable requirement that any damage, no matter how small, be noted on the contract; and if the agent refuses, go somewhere else.

  • emanon256

    The last few times I have rented from Avis, my name has been on a board telling me where my rental is parked, and in all cases it was well after dark, and an outdoor lots with little lighting making it hard to see anything.  They have also not had the form in the car to fill out with dents.  I’ve inspected as best as I could and one time when I saw a dent, I went to the counter and waited in line to get a dent form.  They told me not to worry about it, that it would already be noted, but I insisted and did get a form. Fortunately I have been lucky and not seen much damage later when I am in light, but it’s almost impossible to see and/or photograph dents or scratches in the dark.
    The biggest problem I have is getting into a car and having it smell like cigarette smoke.  Every time I go back to the counter and request a different car, and they always give me a hard time about it.  One of my co-workers got a smoky car once and decided it wasn’t worth waiting in line again, and a few days after he returned it he got a $750 bill for cleaning out the smoke smell.  He told them that he never smoked in it, that it smelled like that when he got it, and they argued and said they had proof.  He asked to see the proof and never heard back.  They then charged the card he used $750.  He disputed the charge and the Credit Card Company sided with him as Avis could not prove it was a valid charge.

  • Grey83

    Every car company goes over the car, garbage. I have rented over 100 times in the last 10 years and I can count on one hand the number of times that the agent has gone out with me and looked at the car. Most of the rentals were with Avis, which my parent company owns, so I have felt mopre comfortable, but still, this is a scam by the rental companies.

  • Cliffordpwoodrick

    Hi – I always carry a small flashlight (LCD) with me and NOTE EVERY scratch, nick, dent or other damage including smoke damage on my own damage sheets and give a copy to the Rep and have him sign my copy. I do NOT accept cars with smoke smell. Thus I never had a problem.

    Hold the flashlight at an angle to the surface and perpendicular to surface to see all damage. This method also picks up glass damage. DO NOT ACCEPT A CAR WITH GLASS DAMAGE because it may turn into a crack.

    Have a wonderful day – Cliff

  • cjr001

    I think the lack of consistent practices in the industry is a major problem. Nobody should be allowed to bill you after the fact. If the rental company refuses to look over a car upon it’s return, regardless of location then it should be their problem (and no, I would never do an ‘after hours’ return unless it was a last resort for precisely this reason.)

    Walkthroughs should be standard. I get one with the agent every time with my local Enterprise location. And while they tell me they only look for larger dents and scratches, they’re still willing to note the smaller stuff when I ask them to. Weaver was right to walk away from that location.

    Other things not mentioned in this article: cars should only be rented out with a full tank. They shouldn’t be tacking on extra bs fees, and so on.

  • Ed Greenberg

    I’m not voting, since the question is more complex than the two answers provide, especially with Enterprise.  

    I regularly rent from Enterprise.  The clerks have a clear plastic clipboard with two circles on them, and they are instructed that if damage fits within the circles (one for glass, the other for the rest of the car) the damage is not chargable.   

    The dutifully recorded everything on the car that was larger than the circles. 

    While we had the car, we did damage.  Opened the passenger door into a concrete planter.   When I returned, the damage was shown to fit within the circle, and no “ding” was recorded. 

    So I’m satisfied with my treatment at Enterprise in that case.  Their system, like their clipboards, seem to be “transparent.”

    That said, I do photograph the car on checkout, and again on checkin, just in case. 

  • Minormi

    Geez! Who could possibly cast a serious NO vote?

  • Info

    If the rental agent refuses to note smaller dings and “is not concerned with damage smaller than golf ball sized dents,” call him out on it and insist that he write that qualification onto the contract, initial and date it.  If he is not concerned with such minor damage, he should have no problem agreeing to it, right?  Then, if they later attempt to bill you for damage that falls below that stated threshold, his statement may be deemed a waiver by them.

  • LeeAnneClark

    How frustrating that even the American Car Rental Association lied:  In the past 5 years I’ve rented numerous cars, all at airport locations, and not ONCE has an agent accompanied me to my car.  They hand me the keys and tell me where it is. 

    This industry has now become a criminal enterprise, and the Attorney General needs to get involved.  They are scamming people left and right – and nobody is doing anything about it.  How is this being allowed to happen?

    Boo to Mr. Takata for allowing himself to fall victim to the scam, and just rolling over and taking it.  Every time someone pays for a scam damage claim, it just perpetuates it and makes it that much more profitable for the criminals.  Don’t be a wuss – if you get scammed, FIGHT IT!  Stand up for yourself!

    And protect yourself.  Last time I rented a car I’d just come off a 12-hour flight, was wearing a back-brace after recent back surgery and was so exhausted I could barely stand.  I still took the few minutes to take photos.  I make a point now of informing the agents, both when I pick up my car and when I drop it off, that I have taken extensive photos of the vehicle so don’t even bother sending me a damage claim.  I haven’t received one in years.

    If we all did that, this problem would disappear.

  • LarryB

    Thankfully, I’ve never had a problem with a rental car company charging me for damage I didn’t cause. The one time I did damage a car, Avis cashed the check from the insurance company, lost the records and filed a collection action against me. That took months, and eventually a call from a lawyer to fix.

    Why is it that rental car companies can be so slipshod and get away with it?

    One other time, I had the agent do a thorough walk-around in Iceland where  cracked windshields and the associated repair charges are common (and honest), we noted a small crack that they hadn’t repaired yet. When a truck pulled a wave of rocks off the road and gave me a bigger crack, I was off the hook and didn’t feel as if there was anything unethical about it. (They probably charged the customer before me for it, and hadn’t replaced the windshield yet because I rented at a remote location.)

  • LarryB

    Every time I’ve rented from Enterprise off airport, the tank has NOT been full and I’ve had to return the car with 3/8 or 5/8 or some other random amount of gas. VERY annoying.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Sam – I take pictures no matter how tired I am.  I consider it a preventative step.  I always ask if someone is going to do a pre-rental damage inspection – in the past five years, not one has.  So I always inform them that I will be doing my own inspection, and will take extensive photos.  Then, when I check the car in, I tell the clerk that I took extensive photos so don’t even bother trying to send me a damage claim.  A few agents have gotten snarky with me – like I care – while others have simply made a notation on my file.  I haven’t received a damage claim since.  Prior to my instituting this practice, I’d received THREE – all of which I fought, and were dropped.

    Until the government takes action to stop these criminals, we need to be aware of this scam, and protect ourselves.

  • cjr001

    Yeah, it’s become more of a problem for me with recent rentals than it used to be. I used to get a full tank more often than not. A couple of times recently, it’s had as little as a quarter or even an eighth of a tank left. It’s ridiculous when the first thing I have to do after getting the car is stop at a gas station.

  • Cindy

    This scam has been going on for years! I had this happen to me even after notating and talking to the rental agency that told me not to worry they showed that the damage occurred prior to me renting.. Months later I receive a bill for the damage that I didn’t do and they said was in their file that someone else had done.Chris wrote a story on my experience years ago.. I ALWAYS take pictures and notate ALL damage and I keep a file for at least 6 months on all rentals. I fought what happened to me and they backed off but renter beware! Always do what you can to protect yourself from these scams!

  • Carrie Charney

    I always see posters talking about voting, but I don’t see where to vote. How could I have voted on this topic…or does the voting close out within a short time?

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Your browser may be blocking the poll. Try enabling Javascript or switching browsers. You should see it.

  • sara8032

    Last car we rented were out of the airport in Las Vegas. Garage is lit okay but not enough to really see dents / scratches well enough so I used the flash light function on my cell phone to go over the car properly. I would assume that a lot of the phones nowadays have flash lights (uses the camera flash for the light), and if you want to be further sure there’s nothing wrong, after that ‘walk-through’, pull out of the garage in to the sunlight and stop to check the car again. I doubt they’ll have much of a case for damages when you’ve only just pulled out of the garage..

  • Swkleiman

    Not sure what taking pictures will proof. A car rental company can always say that a picture of a  dent found on a car was taken after the renter cause the dent himself. The only way a picture will help if it is taken before the renter drives away and the picture is placed within all the other paperwork and kept with the rental company before the renter drives away

  • ChrisY

    Chris, I get an “HTML misformed” message when I vote.

  • LeeAnneClark

    I always take a picture of the car in numbered parking spot when I’m picking up the car, in addition to any minor damage (scratches or whatever) on the car itself.  That would be proof enough that the photo was taken when you picked up the car.  When I drop it off, I take photos of the entire car at the drop-off location to show that there was no damage when I dropped it off, in case they try to scam me for damage caused later.

    But the reality is that it would never get to the point where you’d even need to prove when the photos were taken.  Every case I know of in which someone told the agency they had photos, they immediately dropped the case.  They know they don’t have a leg to stand on. 

    One time I was at the agency dropping the car off, when the agent started telling me they were going to charge me for the scratch on the trunk.  I laughed, pulled out my camera (I’d taken the photos on my digital camera, as my phone didn’t have a camera in it at the time) and showed him the photos I’d taken of that exact scratch when I picked up the car.  He got quite red in the face and started sputtering, but…no damage claim! ;-)

  • BlondieDC

    I recently rented from Enterprise in downtown Chicago–my distaste for this company is legendary, but it was seriously the only car I could find in downtown or the airport for that day.  The agent started quizzing me on my insurance coverage and deductible…I only told him which company my coverage was with and declined to answer the other questions.  Then I took photos of the car.  Where he asked me to initial the damages, I wrote “per photos” and then initialed.  The racket these companies have is unbelievable!

  • Charles

    “In the meantime, the only way to ensure you won’t get dinged for damage
    you didn’t cause is to either buy the car rental company’s overpriced
    and highly-profitable insurance, which can double the cost of your
    rental, or to take your own pictures.”

    If, by dinged, you mean having to pay money yourself, there is something else you can do. Always, always, always rent a car using a major credit card that includes rental car insurance!!!  I can’t emphasize that enough. Then this becomes a non-issue. You pass the claim to the credit card company and they deal with it and they have a lot more leverage and experience than you do. You don’t have to fight the claim, either your regular insurance or the credit card insurance will do it for you.

    I’m curious as to how anyone is managing to rent with a card that does not include insurance. I use my Amex for car rentals and have had one claim that was processed very seamlessly. Isn’t rental car insurance included with all Visa, Mastercard, and Discover cards these days? I’m concerned that a lot of people may not realized that they can pass that $500 or $3000 bill to someone else to handle and won’t be personally responsible at all. Perhaps the main reason they can offer this insurance for free is become people don’t realize they have it? Yes, it’s secondary insurance, but it will pick up the part your regular insurance does not cover, i.e. the deductible, and will handle claims smaller than that. Debit cards don’t usually include this benefit, but who is renting cards with debit cards, anyway (or using debit cards at all, for that matter).

  • http://www.myitaliantravels.com Mark S

    what I do when I rent a car is take pictures of the front, sides and anywhere else on the car, I also take pictures of any dents already on the car. I also take pictures of the car when I am returning it and keep the pictures on my computer at home. If anyone has any problems with the car I have my before and after pictures and all are date stamped and as far as I know the date can’t be changed. It may sound like I over do it but I just don’t like not protecting myself, If I did something I will pay for it but I am not paying for something I didn’t do.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Mark, given the proliferation of this scam, trust me you are NOT over-doing it!  Kudos to you – this is what we all need to do.  If we all did it, the scam would go away.

  • LeeAnneClark

    I disagree that you should pass these claims on to your credit card or insurance company.  Doing so only perpetuates the scam, because whomever you pass them off to will likely just pay them…and then the rental car agency was successful in their criminal scam.

    What we need to do is PROTECT OURSELVES – take photos, and let the agency know you’ve taken photos.  If they try to scam you, fight it.  Don’t roll over and hand it off to someone else.  Stand up for yourself.

  • Tom

    Like others I long ago started taking pictures of the rental car but I also had the current days newspaper prominently displayed so that there is no question about the pics.  I take pics of every spot on the car & the interior. They don’t even try to mess with you when you have done that.

  • S.Lynn

    I take a couple of pics, then a photo of the odometer, then more pics. I took more pics of the vehicle than my trip to Maui last year.

  • Stevesub

    Avis is trying to scam us right now and we did not even rent the car from them. The driver of an Avis car claimed my wife put a huge scrape down the side of his car in a carpark that was much higher than our car could have possibly done. Also there is no damage at all to our car. Avis are now trying to get $$ out of us to fix it. We have threatened court action and have heard nothing back – yet.

  • Linda

    I just wonder how many times they can/do charge for a ding before it’s acctually fixed or if ever fixed.  Seems like quite a racket to me.  If they charge for certain damage and also loss of use that car should be in tip top shape the next time it goes out to a customer.  I would think that a person’s insurance company would require the car company to show that they aren’t charging multiple times for the same dent before they pay a penny to the car company.

  • AbbeyW

    I try only to rent from smaller airports.  I’ve found that the slower-paced counters tend to be more detail-oriented and much nicer.  It’s always nice having them actually remember you when you return your car.  Last time we missed some damage to the tail lights (trunk was open while we were inspecting) but we came back and our rental agent noted it for us.  No charges ever.

    Last time we rented from a major city (O’Hare) we brought back the car in perfect condition, gassed up, and they charged us because the car wasn’t “full” enough for them.  The gas station we used was 3 miles away, and apparently that was too far.  Got dinged $15 for that, even though we had a receipt.  Too many people going through there and not enough time to care for their customers.  Never again.

  • MichelleLV

    My mother rented from Enterprise last week.  They gave her a car with the gas light on, told her where the gas station was, and instructed her that it was ok to return empty.  It also smelled of smoke.  This was after waiting an hour for the car.   The car was being paid for by her mechanic so she didn’t make a big issue of it but swears she will never pay for a enterprise rental in the future. 

  • MichelleLV

    Correction:  She said it smelled of smoke and frebreeze.   

  • flutiefan

    i have the same problems with Firefox. i’ve used Chrome or Explorer to access the polls.

  • Jim Zakany

    The photo’s metadata will record the date and time it was taken.

    To spin your statement a bit, unless the rental company can prove the damage occurred while I had the car, they won’t get a settlement from me.

  • madtad1

    My wife and I rent frequently from Hertz (2-3 times per month) and have yet to have the car photographed/videoed by an agent. We do it ourselves.

    As for filling out the form? I pretty much put S or D everywhere for anything I see that might possibly be damage.

  • Charles

    You are assuming the insurance companies will happily pay the bill. They
    will not. The adjuster who will handle your case spends every day
    dealing with rental car companies. They have massively more experience
    than you do and I’m sure their salary is dependent on how much the DON’T
    pay out to those companies. I’ll bet they catch many a scam you would
    never be able to catch.

    I recently went through a small claim to
    American Express for a damaged tire in St. Martin. There was a status
    page that listed what I had to send (my rental receipt and my insurance
    information) and what the rental car company was required to send. There
    was a long list of details required from the rental car company
    including paid receipts for repairs, pictures, records for the car, etc.
    They are not rolling over and paying these bills. They are checking
    them out carefully. And, they have leverage; you do not. They simply
    hold the payment to the rental car company.

    So, I’m not
    sympathetic about these stories. There’s an entire infrastructure out
    there that handles these types of claims on a daily basis, so why not
    let them fight the rental car companies instead of you. And I wonder how
    many people are paying these claims and don’t even realize there was
    someone who would deal with it for them. If you call Hertz, they could
    care less. If American Express calls them, they listen!

    I do take pictures when I rent, so I could provide them to the insurer as well, but even then, I would let them handle this.

  • Winepro

    Just got back from Vegas where I rented twice from Dollar. First rental I looked the car over and could not find an agent to note them with. When I got to the check out gate and started to open my door to go over the damages, Tony started to scream at me that it was “policy” that I could not leave the car at the gate and  I would have to just tell him where the scratches and dings were. I advised him that I could not remember everyone and would have to refresh my memory. He advised me that if I left the vehicle, he would have the police arrest me. He then x’d every area of the vehicle slip, handed it back and said “there, you can bring back the car totalled, are you happy now?” At the next check out a few days later. I got the “were OK guys here, we don’t sweat the small wear & tear items, TRUST ME on that.

    As to credit card insurance, I received a bill years ago from Hertz on a windsheild claim after the fact. I turned it into Visa, who invesigated it and decided that it should not be paid. Hertz has not backed down and now I no longer can rent from them as I am blacklisted. If we are forced to rent with them, it has to be in my wifes name.

  • http://jigg.xanga.com ray lee

    I just came back from LA and the Enterprise rep there told me the same thing, “Any dent that’s the size of a golf ball or a scratch that’s 5 inches or less is considered wear and tear.”  I checked very inch of the car, including the roof just to make sure I didn’t see anything bigger than a golf ball or a scratch longer than 5 inches.  

    When I returned it, the person who took it did a walk around and didn’t note anything.  Usually, I would take pictures of each and every dent and scratch, but I didn’t this time because of what the rep said.  I guess I’ll know in a month, whether what the rep said is true or not.

  • Carrie Charney

    Thanks, I think Firefox is the culprit.

  • DaveC

    When I rent from Hertz I do a walk around, If I see anything I check it against the outline in my package. If it is not noted I get the security guard to mark it and sign. Never had a problem