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The car rental industry is in trouble. And this time, it can’t be fixed by quietly settling out of court with its customers or lobbying a few state lawmakers.

Maybe you’ve seen the recent TV report about the allegedly bogus damage claims filed by Budget against its customers in Canada. You’ve probably said to yourself, “A-ha! I knew they were doing that!

So are a lot of other people.

But why do I think this time is different from all the other times the industry has gotten away with a slap on the wrist?

Walter Bird, that’s why.

Bird rented a Lincoln Towncar from Budget at the Toronto Airport in April. No one offered to do a pre-rental walkaround, and no one was available to inspect the car, he says. They just handed him the keys.

When he returned the car undamaged to Budget, same thing — no one looked at the car.

“The lady at the rental desk just asked me for the mileage,” he says.

You probably know what happens next, don’t you?

Several weeks later, I received an envelope from Budget. Enclosed was an estimate for a new tire, and a copy of a credit card billing for the new tire, charged against my credit card, for a total of $154. I did not receive a cover letter or anything to explain what happened, or why they charged my credit card.

Bird maintains that there was no damage to the car and that Budget sent the wrong customer the bill. Indeed, the mileage and rental rate didn’t match his, and he can’t see his own signature on the bill Budget provided.

I get cases like Bird’s all the time. So why is this one so persuasive?

Because it happened 17 years ago. That’s right, Bird rented the car in 1995, and he’s still fighting.

“There has to be billions that have been made from fraudulent repairs,” he says. “Now, someone is doing something about it.”

I don’t know what will happen to Bird’s case, but if he’s still pushing for justice 17 years later, I have to assume there are others. It only takes a few to make this the car rental industry’s worst nightmare in 2013.

I hope Canadian authorities conduct a full investigation, and that the United States follows up with one of its own. I’m afraid there is much to be discovered.

It’s too late for me to help Bird — too late by about 16 years — but I’m going to be following this issue closely in 2013 and I’m following up with a bigger story in January.

By the way, be sure to click back here this afternoon for part one of my interview with Allison Ausband, Delta’s head of customer service.

Does the American car rental industry have a repair fraud problem?

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