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.