Charged $1,341 for damage I didn’t do

Question: I’m having a problem with a car rental, and I’m hoping you can help. I rented a car from National Car Rental in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. I did not take photos of the car at pick up or drop off. Big mistake!

I’m a very careful driver, and when I park, I avoid places where I could be dinged. When I picked up the car, I did a visual inspection and noted a scratch on the rear left bumper. An attendant indicated it was “noted in the computer.”
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Maybe I should have taken a picture of my rental car

Question: I’m having a problem with a car I recently rented from National in Denver, and I hope you have the time to help me. I’m a faithful reader of your column, but when I rented the car, I failed to follow your advice.

As we were driving away, I said to my husband, “Oh, shoot, I forgot to take pictures of the car and I didn’t get an agent to sign off on it. Oh well, I haven’t had trouble with National before.”
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The Travel Troubleshooter: Whose car rental bill is this, please?

Question: I recently rented a pickup truck through National in Berkeley, Calif., for a one-way move to Walla Walla, Wash. The two-day trip went smoothly, and we loaded and unloaded the truck without incident.

When I returned the vehicle to the rental agency, I did a thorough walkaround, and found not one iota of damage. I cleaned the interior, and opened and closed the back gate to check for any left-behind items, and found the truck bed in exactly the same condition I rented it in.

I brought the keys to the counter, and the agent accepted them, and told me they would send me my final invoice. No one was in the lot to check the condition of the truck with me and verify the condition of the truck.

A few months later, I got a call from a collection agent at Enterprise, which owns National He said there had been $750 worth of damage to the truck’s back gate and left rear side.

I was shocked. When they finally sent me the documents, they showed massive damage to the rear gate. There also appeared to be some sort of collision damage. The repairs were executed months after my rental.

I told him I couldn’t have done it. They refuse to hear from me or treat the case as anything but an opportunity for monetary gain, and I was dumb enough not to have photographed the truck or have them do a full inspection.

As of today they will be sending the bill to collections, so unless they hear reason I will be harassed and my credit possibly damaged. This is really a nightmare for me, in part because I find myself so helpless to the wolfish and questionable practices Enterprise Holdings and National Rent-a-Car has employed.
How is the allowable, legally? What are my options for pressing my case? — Dan Anthony, Eugene, Ore.

Answer: National’s efforts to collect damages from customers who damage its cars is completely legal. Coming after you, however, is another question.
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The Travel Troubleshooter: A dropped car rental claim that returned

Question: I rented a car from National for a family trip to Houston. The rental was uneventful. But a month later, I received a letter saying that the car had been returned with about $2,000 worth of damage, which included needing to replace a front bumper and a headlight.

I’m certain this damage didn’t happen while I was renting the car. My wife and three kids were with me. We were getting in and out of all the doors repeatedly. We would have noticed any damage. When I returned the car, the agent did a quick walk-around, and the car was fine.

I followed up by calling the claim representative at National. She checked, and in a follow-up call told me that she was recommending closing the claim. Then I got a phone call from National saying that they had figured out what happened, and it wasn’t my fault, and they were closing the claim. So it all seemed fine until another month went by, and I got a letter saying that they had decided to pursue the claim after all.

I’m insured, and the loss is covered, but I’d rather use my insurance for when I actually have an accident! I’d always assumed that when you’ve returned a car and they have signed off and handed you a bill, then you aren’t responsible for the vehicle any longer. Apparently that’s not true.

My insurance company is contesting the claim, but they also say that the only real protection against a rental car company making this kind of claim is to take 8 to 10 time-stamped pictures of the car from different angles every time you return a rental car. This seems crazy to me. But is it something we should all start doing? — Timothy Taylor, Minneapolis

Answer: Yes. Take pictures of your car before and after your rental and keep them at least six months. The systems used to determine who damaged a rental are far from perfect. At least one company, Hertz, has pledged to begin photographing all of its cars before they leave the lot. The rest have less scientific ways of determining who is responsible for the dings, dents and scratches. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say they try to guess who might have done it.
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Enterprise’s Van Horn: Vehicle damage recovery is “not a profit center”

Roger Van Horn is the vice president for corporate loss control at Enterprise Holdings, which owns Enterprise, National and Alamo. Since I’ve received a lot of recent questions about car rental damage claims — many from Enterprise customers — I wanted to ask him a few questions about what happens when a car is dinged or scratched.

How is the rental process supposed to work, in terms of inspecting a vehicle for pre-existing damages?

We conduct a pre-rental vehicle inspection, which includes cleaning, refueling, necessary maintenance and damage review, for all of our brands. Our Enterprise Rent-A-Car service model involves employee interaction with every customer during the vehicle selection process. This allows us to make a physical inspection with our customer – before a rental car is driven off the lot.

Our Alamo Rent A Car and National Car Rental service models don’t involve employee interaction unless questions arise, so cars are not inspected in the presence of customers at the commencement of the rental. Because accidents are an unfortunate fact of life, some of our Alamo and National customers do personally inspect rental cars for additional peace of mind and to provide them a clear understanding of the overall condition of the vehicle from the start of the rental period.

Regardless of brand, it is our normal practice to inspect the vehicle upon return with the customer present.
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National “blacklists” customer after credit card dispute

When Matt Ginsberg found an undisclosed dropoff fee on his National rental car bill a few years ago, he disputed the charge on his credit card. It worked. His credit card company sided with him. Case closed. Or was it?

About a year and a half later, I walked up to a National counter to pick up a car I had reserved through an online travel agency. I was told that I had been blacklisted and that National wouldn’t rent to me any more.

This was quite a problem — I was in St. Louis for a business meeting and needed to get to it. I wound up renting from Hertz at a much higher rate. This happened to me again when I tried to rent from Alamo, since National and Alamo have apparently merged.

Blacklisting is not an uncommon practice in the travel industry. I’ve documented National’s tendency to do it in the past. Airlines do it, too.

How do you get off the list? The best way is to ask. Nicely.

That’s what I suggested to Ginsberg. So he phoned National.

I just called National customer service and was told that on the basis of my driver’s license, I’m still blacklisted.

They said there was no reason in the record, but I don’t think it could be anything else (I have a clean driving record, etc.).
They said that my record included a phone number to call.

Ginsberg tried the number.

I waited on hold for an hour. A representative said that National had moved its headquarters in 2004 (when the original chargeback happened) and that meant that they would let me off.

Totally different from the last time I tried to sort this out with them but hey, it’s fixed. Thanks for your help!

National, and any of the other companies with similar blacklists, are well within their rights to refuse to do business with whomever they choose, of course.

But at a time like this, why would they?

We’re out of cars — and you’re out of luck

Question: What’s a car rental company’s responsibility to have a vehicle available for you when it sends you a confirmation? I ask because we recently rented a car from National Car Rental in Mexico, and they ran out of cars.

When we arrived at the rental counter in Guadalajara, a representative told us that other renters did not return their cars on time. He said there would be no cars for several days and would not help us find another car.

We eventually got a rental from another company, but it took us an additional five hours, and we were very upset by the experience. Although our first email to National was acknowledged with a form response, we haven’t heard anything from the company in two months. I thought rental companies had to either honor their reservation or find a car from another rental company. Isn’t that what National should have done? — David Nicholson, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Answer: National should have found you another car — even if it was from a competitor. That’s the policy of most major rental companies, including National. The Guadalajara office goofed.

Why do car rental companies confirm reservations when there’s a chance they won’t have a car? One reason is that customers can cancel their reservation without penalty, or just not show up at all. In fact, as many as a third of the people with reservations are no-shows at some rental locations, according to informal estimates I’ve heard. (It’s usually between 15 and 25 percent.)

That means car rental companies have to factor in the possibility that lots of the people who reserve a car won’t show up when they’re managing their fleet. And that can be a real guessing game.

You checked in on a day when National guessed wrong. It had run out of cars. The rental employee must have known National’s policy, but instead chose to let you fend for yourself in a foreign country. Something tells me he won’t be getting his Christmas card from the Mexico Tourism Board this year.

You shouldn’t have taken a frontline employee’s “no” for an answer. Instead, you should have asked for a manager, and if one wasn’t available, you should have called National’s reservation number to report this. National could have helped you find another car quickly.

Car rental employees often treat foreign tourists differently from natives, and this seems to be a case-in-point. It could have been worse. I’ve heard horror stories of out-of-country visitors being forced to buy unnecessary insurance or talked into expensive upgrades. My best advice would be to be on your guard when you rent overseas. The moment you open your passport, you become a walking dollar sign.

I contacted National on your behalf, and it refunded you $685, the cost of your car rental in Mexico, and sent you a coupon for three rental days as an apology.