Photodiem/Shutterstock

Photodiem/Shutterstock

You know the ding-and-dent car rental scam? Sure you do.

Rent a car, and the agents tell you “not to worry” about the little scratches and bumps on the high-mileage vehicle. But when you return it, they give it a careful once-over and pressure you to sign an incident report, acknowledging you’ll pay whatever repair bill they send you — usually something suspiciously close to your car insurance deductible.

Well, Chelsey Johnson thinks she’s a ding-and-dent victim. Let’s hand the mike over to her to hear her story.

A few months ago, Johnson rented a car from Advantage in Minneapolis.

“A cranky young desk agent pointed me out to the lot with my rental agreement folder and keys,” she remembers. “The young man working in the lot, at which I was the sole customer, pointed me to my car, but didn’t walk over with me.”

What’s missing?

“Yes, they forgot to do the pre-inspection of the car,” she adds. “I didn’t even think about it before I left. I didn’t think about it until I returned the car three days later and the employee checking me in — the same one who’d sent me on my way — said, ‘What happened to the roof?’”

Johnson was surprised to discover two dents on the roof, right above each of the front seats. She told the representative it was the first time she had seen them and that she was absolutely sure, “it didn’t happen on my watch.”

So how was she so certain? On the first night of her rental, she’d parked the car at a suburban hotel, and then in the driveway of her parents’ home. Johnson is absolutely sure nothing happened to the vehicle while it was under her care.

And that’s when things got interesting. She recalls,

The employee at this point tried desperately to get me to sign an incident report that would have said I acknowledged responsibility for the damage that had occurred during my rental period.

I did not sign this, as I was sure a) it did not happen under my watch, and b) the company had no evidence whatsoever to prove it did — the pre-inspection form had never been filled out, initialed by the employee, or signed by me! There exists no record of the state the car was in when I rented it.

Advantage didn’t let the fact that there was no damage claim or pre-inspection sheet get in the way of collecting from her. It handed the case over to a damage claims company called PurCo, which sent her a bill for $591, a little higher than the typical car insurance deductible.

Advantage and PurCo say it’s not their fault that she didn’t fill out the pre-inspection report.

“You are told to inspect the car,” a representative wrote to her. “The negligence is not with the rental location.”

I reviewed Johnson’s case and I have to be honest, I found it to be a borderline one. Pre-rental inspections are the driver’s responsibility. If the dents weren’t noted on the previous rental, then either Johnson or her insurance company would be responsible — inspection sheet or not.

At the same time, PurCo and Advantage were behaving suspiciously. Dents on the roof? Even if she’d inspected the car, she probably wouldn’t have seen those. A five-hundred-some-dollar bill? Fishy. PurCo wasn’t showing much flexibility, and its correspondence could have been interpreted as a kind of bullying: Pay up or we’ll send this to a collections agency.

“I am tired of being hassled by them,” Johnson told me.

Between the time I received this case and today, Advantage apparently saw things her way and dropped the case. Perhaps not coincidentally, it also filed for bankruptcy protection.

All of which leaves the rest of us wondering: Was this just a scam? Did Advantage know the car had a dent on the roof and has it perhaps billed for the same repair multiple times?

That’s hard to prove, and I’d like to hope it’s not true.

Was Advantage trying to scam Chelsey Johnson?

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