I didn’t have a ticket, but Budget charged me anyway

Leunchowpan/Shutterstock

I’m excited to bring back a weekly feature that probably belongs on every consumer advocacy site: “Is this a scam?” It really needs no introduction. By the way, I’ve also re-launched a related column, That’s Ridiculous!, on our sister site, Consumer Traveler. It’s definitely worth checking out. Here we go …

If you happen to blow through a tollbooth or get a parking ticket in your rental car, you probably know that in addition to paying the fine, your rental company will assess its own processing fee – a charge that, curiously, sometimes exceeds the toll violation or parking fine.

But what if you’re innocent? What if you paid the fine, and can prove it?

Sally Glunt’s husband rented a car from Budget in Long Beach, Calif., late last year. “He got a parking ticket from the City of Long Beach, for street cleaning day by the post office,” she says. “The signage was way down the street — but that’s not the story. He paid the ticket promptly and we received notice the check had been cashed.”

End of story? Not exactly.

She continues,

After that, we noticed a $30 charge from Budget on our credit card.

I contested it through Chase and then received a funky copy of a letter from Budget saying the charge is an ‘administrative fee’ for research and processing costs.

Any questions were referred to a bogus email address. I also called the phone numbers provided, which always went to voicemail, and calls were never returned.

She appealed to Budget in writing and received the following response almost six months after her husband’s rental:

Thank you for your email, I am very sorry for the delayed response. We receive a high volume of emails in regards to citations.

The administration fee applies and is part of our policy whenever receiving notification of a citation to one of our vehicles.

Say what?

Do you mean to tell me that Budget will charge you $30 even if you pay the ticket, and can show proof? What the heck?

“This may be a common practice for car rental companies,” says Sally. “But I think it’s unfair.”

She’s doesn’t want anyone else to face the same issue.

I’m done with pursuing this, having gotten the final answer from Budget.

But I don’t agree with it and would love to see some collective pressure on Budget and any other rental companies that unfairly impose a processing fee for something they didn’t have to do anything about.

She wants to know – and so do I – if this is a scam. I can certainly see Budget’s point of view, that it would need to research a ticket like this to see if it’s been paid. But if a rental customer has paid his debt to society, shouldn’t Budget also be as forgiving?

And what’s to stop Budget from “researching” a case that doesn’t have any fines, and simply charging it to a customer?

Also, where exactly does Budget disclose to its customers that it will charge them for researching parking tickets? Even if it does inform travelers, isn’t that kind of fee just a little absurd?

Is Budget's "research" fee a scam?

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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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  • MarkKelling

    I recently went onto a toll road with a rental car when I didn’t mean to. The total bill from the rental company for this was $8. Which was $3 for the toll and $5 for an administrative fee. I thought that was OK considering the fine for driving on that toll road without a transponder is $500.

    It is unfortunate the OP got charged. But this is not a scam. It takes time to research the ticket and the OP did do something that caused a ticket to be issued. $30 does sound high, but it is one of the costs of renting a car.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    You’re not understanding what I am saying

    I’m saying the normal day to day operation would require a certain amount of resources. But, because of certain bad behaviors of customers, a business is required to expend additional resources. Those additional resources are properly charged to the customers who cause the business to expend these additional resources.

    A perfect example is a loss mitigation department, e.g. unpaid bounced checks. If a bank rolled those costs into the cost of doing business then all customers would pay for the additional costs of a loss mitigation department.

    I submit that the costs associated with such a department should be borne by those customers who caused the additional costs. Neither the shareholders, not other customers should have to pay for “so and so’s” bounced check.

    I submit that the administrative costs associated with processing ticket notifications of rental car customers fall in the same category. Other customers who don’t park illegal should not bear these additional costs.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    The LW can never be analogized to the hypothetical renter because the hypothetical renter is truly unrelated to the incident, a scenario which is fundamentally different from LW’s situation.

  • EdB

    I wasn’t trying to equate my question to be the same situation as the OP’s, just another possible scenario where an administrative fee might not be justified based on a similar situation. Renter gets ticket and pays. Municipality is not suppose to send a notification but erroneously does. The municipality’s error was not caused by the renter, so while Budget does have costs associated with the research, it was because of the erroneous notice, not the renter’s parking violation. In a case like this, I don’t think charging the renter is justifiable.

  • jim6555

    Being a large fleet operator, Budget could have an arrangement to receive courtesy notices from the City of Long Beach whenever a fine on one of their vehices had been paid. They may have taken the information from the notice and billed the customer for this “research”. I don’t put anything past them. For many reasons, I consider rental car companies to be unscrupulous bottom feeders who will do anything to make extra profit.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Ok. What about the other 10,000 municipalities in the US?

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Fair point. But the question that I answered earlier, who should pay?

  • Michael__K

    No, I’m saying the administrative fee should already pay for all the additional resources you cite. The more bad behavior the more administrative fees are billed.

    I agree that neither shareholders nor other customers should have to pay for “so and so’s” bounced check. But the reality is that in some cases the bounced check fee will prove uncollectible.

    And I bet that the other customers who bounce checks (from whom the fee is collectible) end up paying for the bad behaviors of those individuals whose fees could not be collected.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Now I’m confused.

    So what exactly are you disagreeing with in my statements?

  • TonyA_says

    I voted NO. Here’s why.
    Suppose I rent a car in Long Beach, CA and get a parking ticket (citation posted in my windshield). My rental agreement includes the following provisions:

    Use of the Vehicle

    7.2 You must pay for any unauthorized repairs to the Vehicle and for all parking and traffic infringements in respect of the Vehicle during the Rental Period.

    Payment

    14.1 At the end of the Rental Period, You must pay Us on demand:

    A. all charges specified on the Rental Document and all charges payable under the Agreement;

    B. any amount paid or payable by Us or You to any person arising out of Your use of the Vehicle or imposed on You or Us by any governmental or other competent authority (such as speeding, parking and traffic fines); and

    C. any amount for which You are liable to Us under the Agreement, in respect of a breach of the Agreement or otherwise.

    So if I don’t pay Budget for the parking violation fee or do not tell Budget I already settled the fee directly with the City of Long Beach (giving them a copy of the invoice); then Budget will have no idea what happened and may receive a citation by mail.

    According to the Long Beach City Auditor, they mail the Registered Owner a notice 5 to 21 days after the citation is uploaded to their computer system. Obviously Budget got one of these notices for the LW’s parking violation and Budget forwarded this to its outsourced processor since Budget received no information from the LW that he paid the ticket.

    It is not the responsibility of Long Beach City to tell Budget that someone already paid the bill. It is the responsibility of the renter to tell Budget they paid the bill so that Budget can interrupt the process of sending all citation notices to its processor. Hence, the fee.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Lots of work, thank you! I wonder if Budget would have still charged the $30 even if notified, since there would have to be some manual work matching the OP’s name and notification to something received 5 to 21 days later. Seems like there would still have to be some work on Budget’s (or any other car rental agency’s) part. Might explain why FQTVLR got billed, too, in a different city with a different agency.

  • Michael__K

    Maybe I should call these “quibbles” or “caveats” as opposed to fundamental disagreements:

    1) The significant costs you cited (like real estate, personnel, computers) that vary according to “bad behavior” have to be set in advance, for some non-trivial length of time, based on forecasts. Regardless of whether there is more bad behavior or less bad behavior than expected, those costs are fixed in the short run.

    In fact, less bad customer behavior than forecasted is not necessarily desirable from the company’s perspective– the cost commitments were already made and less bad behavior means less fee revenue to cover those commitments. More bad behavior than forecasted is not necessarily a bad thing — if the workers can skimp on other tasks (like taking longer to call back customers) to compensate, then more bad behavior can be profitable.

    2) Regarding:
    Who should pay for these additional man and machine resources? There are three possibilities…

    I submit there’s a fourth possibility (or call it a variation on you “Budget’s customers” option) — the rental company knows that some of the billed admin fees won’t stick. I bet that it’s the other customers (for whom the fee does stick) who pay for that.

  • Annie M

    That is all fine and good but Budget needs to have that on the rental agreement. Who thinks to go online and read an agreement? It should be given in writing in the agreement handed to the customer. I can’t recall is it is in a contract or not.

    But in this case, Budget should waive the fee for the client and I think this is one Chris SHOULD take up to try and get waived. And the City should have also advised the client to let the car rental company know about the ticket being paid – perhaps if she had shown Budget proof of the payment they wouldn’t have charged her.

  • TonyA_says

    I will make a huge guess here.
    It depends on how the system is programmed.
    Suppose Budget uses ATS Processing Systems rentalcarticket dotcom.
    I assume the mailed notices will be entered into the system with the citation # as one of the cross-referenced (key) fields.
    If Budget has the ability to key in that a customer has paid the citation, then the process can be interrupted.
    But ATS has this in their FAQ:

    Question: I already paid the parking citation directly to the Issuing Authority or the Rental Car Company?

    Answer:
    You may be eligible for a refund if you paid
    the parking ticket prior to the due date stated on the citation that
    was left on the rental vehicle. In order to start the refund request
    process, please visit the dispute page on rentalcarticket dotcom
    and fill out the dispute page as well as provide/upload
    proof-of-payment made to the Issuing Authority. Valid proof includes a
    receipt, a bank statement, or the front and back of your canceled check.
    Upon receipt and verification we will be able to credit your
    outstanding balance if sufficient proof is provided. Please refer to the
    fax number on the front of this notice if you do not have the ability
    to upload your documents.

  • TonyA_says

    Imagine the process.
    City mails citation to Budget. (it does not contain renter information).
    Budget (or its processor) has to search Budget’s rental’s database to identify the Renter, his credit card, etc.
    Then further research has to be done to check with the City or DMV before payment of the fine will be done by budget.
    Only at this point will the processor know the violation was paid by the OP.

  • TonyA_says

    Here’s a excellent article:
    bit dot ly/1mbZlDt

  • bodega3

    Seriously? It seems like everyone by the husband who parked where he wasn’t suppose to park is being blamed. He screwed up and there are fees involved in that.

  • bodega3

    Yes, it is the renter’s fault, plain and simple. If he hadn’t parked the car illegally, none of what came afterwards would have happened.

  • Michael__K

    My experience (with a toll*) was consistent with @thoroughlyamused’s. Even if you DO tell the rental agent either that you already settled the fee and have documentation or that you would like to pay the rental company directly, the agent won’t have any idea what to do next.

    They’ll probably refer you to their manager, who will probably explain that this is handled by outside contractors at multiple locations — and you can’t directly contact them or even know which location to contact until you already receive a notice from them in the mail with a citation number.

    If you don’t take ‘no’ for an answer, and you diligently, and persistently pursue the matter by phone and by email, I found that it is possible to eventually reach someone who could help. However, it literally took over a month for me to get to that point.


    (*)This was regarding a toll, for an Avis rental. The people I ultimately needed to speak to were under Avis Budget Group Inc., which handles these matters for both companies.

  • TonyA_says

    The default scenario is what you both suggested. Fees will be charged to the renter’s credit card. Some FAQs say so. I think that is the most efficient way to handle things.

    The only way I think the OP could have interrupted the process was to have paid the citation IMMEDIATELY so that the city did not have to mail the notice to budget.

  • flutiefan

    How is my analogy flawed? He didn’t HAVE to rent a car. And @thoroughlyamused says the rest for me…

  • Thoroughlyamused

    What a lot of people are missing here is that the $30 fee is NOT designed to be a money maker and it is NOT meant to punish people who are proactive in taking care of their tickets, like the OP (I realize I’m giving the OP the benefit of the doubt because we don’t have the actual timeframe of when the ticket was paid). Let’s be honest, it doesn’t take $30 to receive a citation, figure out who was driving and bill out the citation.

    The purpose of the $30 fee is to dissuade renters from blowing through multiple toll booths without a transponder or parking wherever the hell they want and just throwing the ticket to the side, assuming the rental company will deal with it. THAT costs money, and since these charges come in often long after the car is returned, are more prone to chargeback situations. And because some renters simply don’t feel like paying for their tolls (see the guy in my story below), chargebacks are frequent, which drives costs up for everyone.

    Citations can be issued in error when the motorist has done nothing wrong. Google photo enforcement scam and you’ll see what I’m talking about. And parking enforcement officers, whose jobs are often outsourced to 3rd party companies (like in Montgomery County), have quotas to meet and are known to occasionally issue citations in error.

    If renters aren’t proactive at all in dealing with these issues and just wait for the ticket to hit the rental company, they deserve to be charged the $30. If someone knowingly drives on a cashless toll road with no transponder when they know better, they deserve to be charged $30. I’m sorry, but someone who receives a parking ticket and immediately pays it should NOT have to pay an extra $30 simply because they happened to be driving a rental car at the time.

  • EdB

    Sigh. Okay, last time. I am not talking about the LW situation, but a hypothetical situation where the renter did have a citation but paid it so the municipality would not send a notice. However, because of a mistake by the municipality, a notice got sent in error. This is not the renter’s fault but you feel they should pay for someone else’s error?

  • bodega3

    The error was in getting the ticket in the first place. I understand what you are saying, but the car company still had to take time to figure it out, so if all this crossed in the mail, it is what it is. The renter pays unless the car company waives it, which in this case, isn’t going to.

  • EdB

    Why does everyone keep reading things in that are not being said. In the hypothetical scenario I am talking about, there should have been nothing in the mail, let alone crossing. In the case I presented, the rental company should never have been notified, but because of an error on the municipality part, the agency gets notified. There are two errors being discussed, but the one by the municipality is not caused by the renter. The renter made an error and corrected it. Then the municipality makes a mistake, but it wasn’t because the renter made a mistake. It is because someone in the municipality made a mistake. Now if you still think the renter should have to pay for a mistake they didn’t make, then we will just have to disagree on that.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Regardless of whether there is more bad behavior or less bad behavior than expected, those costs are fixed in the short run.

    Not if you use a staffing agency, short term overflow rentals, and other outside contract services.

    In fact, less bad customer behavior than forecasted is not necessarily desirable from the company’s perspective– the cost commitments were already made and less bad behavior means less fee revenue to cover those commitments.

    See above.

    More bad behavior than forecast is not necessarily a bad thing

    Can be, e.g. bank overdraft fees. But in general that’s not true, especially if the operation is not particularly scalable

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Payments tend to be credited promptly because they are time sensitive. The fine increases with time.

  • Chris Johnson

    It takes $30 worth of an employee’s time to investigate and make sure the ticket was paid? With the way things are now, some low-level office grunt could probably verify that the ticket had been paid in minutes just by looking on the internet, or made a quick phone call. The $30 fee is just another
    money-grab from the car rental companies.
    Perhaps if the fee/penalty had been $5 or something, I would have felt differently.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I understand but if you look at the various post below, you realize it takes a fair amount of time because it not just a simple phone call. The employee also has to determine which renter incurred the cost, information which is not on the ticket. Plus, its not just the employee but all the associated costs including the infrastructure, employees, housing, IT, etc., that is being paid for.

    And there is the element to discourage people from letting tickets lag. It worked for me as I paid my ticket within 24 hours just to ensure that I didn’t have to pay an administrative fee on top of the ticket cost.

  • Thoroughlyamused

    Don’t break the law in a rental car and if you do, pay your own friggin tickets. Don’t wait forever hoping the tickets/toll slips through the cracks. If you do that you deserve to be charged the $30.

  • Michael__K

    I’m certain they use outside vendors, which can make them a little bit more nimble (e.g. when capacity adjustments by other clients of the same vendor happen to be counter-cyclical with the rental company’s adjustments). But that doesn’t fundamentally eliminate those dynamics.

    I have every reason to believe that the operation is scalable. There are economies of scale here; not diminishing returns.

  • omgstfualready

    I think to read an agreement before I sign it, which is why I stated I remember seeing that the last time I rented a vehicle. To do otherwise is naive and irresponsible. The vendor should not waive the fee that the customer agreed to be held to because the customer was lazy.

  • bodega3

    I am guessing that you don’t own a business. I think $30 is a reasonable fee for a business to receive a bill, verify their records and send out notification to the renter. If you don’t like the fee, then don’t get a ticket!

  • PolishKnightUSA

    And this is what it’s coming to… having to make an Ebenezer Scrooge long paper trail when you rent a car to avoid being accused of something you didn’t do.

    1) Walk around the car and inspect for dents and scratches and note on the form. Then climb up to make sure nothing is on the roof. Then get a flashlight and go under the car to make sure nothing is wrong down there. Take photos of everything, then email them to yourself with a timestamp. Make sure the rental agency accepts your signoff form. Insist upon a copy for yourself.
    2) Open the hood. Do you want them to claim you busted something on the road? Check the oil and radiator fluid.

    3) Get copies of receipts for everything. Hold onto them for at least 6 months in case they come after you.

    4) Returning the car, have the person receiving the car follow you on an inspection. If they decide to crash it themselves in the garage, they can blame you. Get a full signoff of a full inspection.
    5) You’ll no doubt encounter resistance from the various employees who are used to 5 minute inspections and signoffs (especially if there is 50 person line of people waiting to get checked in on Monday morning.) You’ll have to be forceful.

    Yikes, this makes going to the Dentist’s office seem like fun by comparison.

    Or you can just do the minimum and pray you’re not a victim.

    Me? I avoid renting a car whenever possible. Take the bus. Get a taxi. Or get a hotel near where you need to be.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I wonder if getting the rental company’s insurance made the difference. Did they let the toll charge (+small admin fee) slide because you had their insurance?

    I suppose it depends upon how long I have the car. If it’s for one day and I’m facing bad roads and weather, then getting the comprehensive/damage coverage makes sense for an extra 20 or so. Any damage they’ll wind up having to foot which means they won’t bother claiming it (they’ll stick it on the next sucker who doesn’t get their insurance.)

    But for a week or more, AMEX lets me pay $20 flat and I have AMEX on my side which is why many vendors hate them. Simultaneously, if a business doesn’t take AMEX, especially a rental company, my eyebrows go up. They probably annoyed AMEX enough that they got dropped. I move on.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Most agreements you see when you rent a vehicle aren’t really the WHOLE agreement. They’ll say something such as “customer agrees to rental agreement terms as per on file” and don’t forget (not the fine print) but:

    THE BACK.

    Usually there’ll be a whole law book printed on the back, in fine print, referred to by the front.

    This is why I have to give credit to the commies who are into government regulation. At least that way, it’s consistent rather than making you have to read through a latin manuscript with every significant transaction.

  • Miami510

    I’m with PolishKnight… taxis or trains. Travel is stressful enough without having to have eyes in your backside.

    The last few times I’ve rented a car at a major, busy airport, they gave me the paperwork, and indicated the car was at a specific location in the garage. When I got to the garage, the procedure was to drive to car to the gate where the attendant checked the paperwork and allowed me to leave. The rental agent didn’t go into the garage and the gate operator is just there to check that the correct car is leaving. Only then did I realize that the papers were all signed (and the condition acknowledged by me) was in the office… before I got to the car.

  • Thoroughlyamused

    “They probably annoyed AMEX enough that they got dropped.”

    Or they got tired of losing money because customers filed chargebacks because they wanted a silver car and got a red car. I had multiple rental car customers argue with me that they should not have to pay for the rental for this exact reason.

    I just don’t get it. I charge thousands on my Southwest Visa card every month, pay it off in full every month, and have had the card for over 5 years. I rent cars, jetskis, purchase expensive electronics, and all kinds of other purchases. You wanna know how many chargebacks I’ve filed since I got the card? ZERO.

    I seriously question the judgement and integrity of people who claim to file chargebacks for multiple things frequently. Either their judgement is terrible because they frequently patronize sketchy businesses who rip them off again and again, or they incur charges for things like blowing through a toll booth when they know a transponder is required, get billed later, and then simply don’t feel like paying. I know multiple small business owners who simply don’t accept AMEX for this very reason. I rent jet skis fairly frequently and the guy only accepts VISA/MC. He’s been in business for 15+ years, has great Yelp reviews and a loyal following in the community. When I asked him about why he didn’t accept AMEX, he said that in addition to the higher processing fees that he had issues in the past with renters damaging his jet skis and then AMEX not honoring charges because the renters refused to sign any kind of damage report. So essentially, what AMEX was telling renters was, “Go ahead and damage someone else’s property, but if you don’t want to pay, don’t worry-just don’t sign the damage report and we’ll make sure you don’t pay a dime.”

  • homestay

    This is the biggest SCAM l have ever read about! If the customer receives a parking fine (whilst driving a hire car) and pays it, in full before the due date then that is it. The situation is resolved and no other charges ought to apply.
    To say the hire company must enforce a research charge is totally unconscionable.
    There is no debt or liability for the hire car company and, even if the company “thought” that there was in such situations then it is beholden upon the company to set up its own business processes without recourse to customer.
    This is a SCAM…
    Don’t rent from Budget, use a reputable company like Hertz as l do and l have never had such issues occur, as outlined by Chris.

  • Californi Cato

    Parking tickets usually work like this: you don’t pay within the allotted time and you get a reminder in the mail. You pay, you don’t get the reminder.

    I paid the parking ticket well within the allotted time.

    I’m sure if Budget gets a ticket reminder in the mail, their army of psychics could magically figure out who had rented the car then.

  • Chris Johnson

    That’s not what happened here. The OP did pay the ticket.

    I pay my own friggin tickets, regardless of what car I was driving.

  • TMMao

    With photo radar, traffic light cameras, and now parking enforcement vehicles with cameras, it could be months before the full cost of the rental is settled.

  • innchfromnj

    Heavy traffic caused me to get stuck in an EZ Pass lane for an East River Bridge in NYC..I had no choice but to go thru the EZ Pass lane.
    Given that this was a rental car, I wanted to resolve this quickly.
    I found where to call the toll Authority and gave them the plate number and description of the car. They took the toll payment right over the phone using my check card.
    The woman could not tell me whether or not a citation had been generated by the EZ Pass toll evader system. She told me to hang on to the receipt which TBTA emailed to me.
    I then called the rental company to let them know I had paid the toll.
    I never heard a word about it. No charge ever appeared on my credit card for any citation or fee. BTW, this was in 2002