Under cover of darkness, car rental companies can hide a lot

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Ever noticed that a lot of frivolous car rental damage claims stories start with: “We picked up our car from a dark garage…”

This Enterprise case begins with, “The garage at the airport was dark.”

Here’s an E-Z case that happened under similar circumstances.

And here’s another dark garage story. Sigh.

All of which brings us to Joyce Newell’s question.

“You advise people to take pics of the cars before driving off the lot,” she says. “That is good advice, which we follow. However, we notice more and more that the lighting in the car rental areas is very poor.”

Newell cites a recent rental as an example. She and her husband rented a car that had just been washed.

“When you take pictures under these conditions, they don’t always show everything,” she says. “And you usually can’t get into the sun until after you exit the checkout point.”

So what’s going on?

Are car rental companies intentionally keeping their garages dark or delivering cars just washed to “cover up blemishes”? That’s an interesting question.

I don’t think anyone is doing this on purpose.

Are they failing to change lightbulbs as quickly as they otherwise might, because there are certain fringe benefits? Only the most disreputable car rental companies would do that, but I wouldn’t rule it out.

The solution: If you have the time, insist on a dry, clean rental car, then drive it into a well-lighted area and take pictures of it before accepting the keys. If the rental company refuses or tells you it’s the “last” car available, tell them you’ll wait for another car, or take your business elsewhere.

The final piece of this puzzle — and one that can result in thousands of dollars of baseless damage claims — is the reassurance you often receive when you do discover preexisting damage.

“When we point out small dings and dents, they are quick to respond that that is just normal wear and tear,” says Newell.

If you get the perfect combination: a wet car in a dark garage with a dismissive agent, you know you’re probably dealing with a shady operator. Don’t walk away — run!

Newell makes an important point. We should be able to trust car rental companies. When an agent hands you the keys to a car, it should be damage free — and the company shouldn’t discourage good-faith efforts to verify the condition of the vehicle.

We should be able to trust that car rental companies won’t try to conceal dings, dents or scratches for the purpose of sending your insurance company a bogus $499 bill.

And if we can’t trust car rental companies, then maybe it’s time to put sensible regulations in place to stop this kind of deception from happening.

Do car rental damage claims need to be regulated by the government?

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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 chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

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  • KanExplore

    I’m not voting because I have no idea whether regulation by the government would do any good – most likely not – but yes, the system seems broken. The car rental companies, by setting a business model that every little ding or dent has to be fixed right away at full cost and charged to the most gullible recent renter, in turn drives the need for each renter to inspect and document and photograph every little ding or dent in order to not to be charged for it. In real life, if I get a minor scratch or something on my car, I chalk it up to normal wear and tear and do not go running to the body shop to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars each time.

    I guess if there could be some category of rental that specifically delineates contractually that both sides accept minor dings as normal and nothing to panic about – or charge thousands for – maybe we could get back to seeing the rental car model as a business that adds convenience rather than as a big “gotcha” game. I know there are some off airport companies that operate that way, sort of, but which are seldom easily accessible to me.

    The whole model demands significant honesty on both sides in order for it to work well – if either agencies or renters are inclined to lie and cheat, it won’t function. And we see plenty of evidence that people are willing to lie and cheat.

  • JenniferFinger

    Maybe not just the car rental industry needs scrutiny, but the auto repair industry does too, if they are overcharging for repairs that are normal wear and tear.

  • Pat

    I think that for a claim to be made, there should be a time limit (hours, not days, weeks, or months) and they must show time stamped before and after photos of the car. Without the before pictures, I do not think they have sufficient proof that the renter caused the damage, unless there is a police accident report.

  • Jeff W.

    Just some food for thought, not all car rental lots are controlled by the car rental agency. At many airports, you pick up your car from a common care rental center. Yes, each agency has its own section of the lot, but it is usually some gov’t airport authority that controls the lot.

    But yes, something should be done. Not sure if gov’t regulation is the answer. Part of it lies with the renter in making sure a full inspection is done before and after the rental. Part of it is on the agencies, who are hawking their insurance and not supplying enough agents to check in/out the cars to verify the walkthroughs.

  • Regina Litman

    A few years ago, I would have voted no, but after some of the stories I’ve read here, I now lean yes. There are more important regulatory priorities, but this one deserves some consideration.

  • Joe Blasi

    Make if you bill for damage and lose of use you must do the repair with documentation

  • Fishplate

    “drive it into the light […] before accepting the keys.”

    I’m not sure how I’m going to manage that…

  • Grant Ritchie

    Ha! Chris? Espresso BEFORE writing! :-)

  • “Only the most disreputable car rental companies would do that”.

    The question is, which ones are they? Which ones are reputable? The ones with big well known brand names? Enterprise is named first in the story – the largest car rental company on earth by number of cars. The third link mentions Thrifty in the destination article. 100% owned by Hertz, considered the best known brand in the world. A quick search shows similar stories on Avis, Budget, Sixt, Europcar, Dollar, Payless – all of them.

    Unfortunately basing opinions on company alone doesn’t cut it anymore. The *insert company name* location of (and more importantly the staff) at – for example – Dallas Love Field might be well managed, honest hard working people who provide excellent service whereas the staff working for the same company a few miles down the road at Dallas Fort Worth might be the poster children for everything nefarious in the car rental industry.

    Before you book with a car rental company, read reviews and see what others have experienced – and when your rental is over, write your own review to help the next traveler looking at their options.

    Follow Christopher’s advice every time you rent a car regardless of how reputable you think a company is. If you’ve followed the stories and forum on his site for a while (and based on the reviews that I see posted every day), none of the companies can be completely trusted. Unfortunate but true in my opinion.

  • Noah Kimmel

    Not advocating for regulation, as I’m a so-called apologist :) but if I had to find a reasonable middle ground, I would propose the following –

    1) damage must be reported to the renter within 14 days of returning the car
    2) damage must include clear, color picture of the damage at appropriate zoom and resolution and timestamp taken within 24 hours of car return
    3) damage must include an estimated cost to fix the car along with a detailed list of maintenance to be performed.
    4) provide evidence of loss of use – i.e. lot must have more than 90% of inventory reserved during period before car is fixed / or other loss of use limits. A scratch only requires a day to fix and car can be re-rented, so no real loss of use.
    5) provide a calendar showing if that specific car was on rent or not previous 2 weeks and after return before damage notification is sent.
    6) provide a reason (even generic) as to why damage was not recorded at check-in. This could include something like “customer used express check in or walked away” or “too busy” whatever, but too many people leave thinking they are fine only to get hit later.
    7) provide a list of common ways to pay / faq’s such as credit card coverage, car insurance, etc.

    the consumer should be given the option to
    1) pay the damage as is
    2) find a comparable quote to fix the damage and an administrative fee to cover the costs to use an alternate mechanic (need to balance incentive to lower repair costs with real-world additional cost to the company to use a separate facility).
    3) dispute the charge and provide evidence. Car company should not be able to report to credit bureau or send to collections for 30 days or some reasonable time to avoid a “false confession”

    Rental companies should be required to let you report damage and submit / store pictures or video of the car either with a lot / check-out employee or on your own within their app or similar so you can report before you leave the lot and not be brushed off.

  • John Baker

    @noah_kimmel:disqus I think you’re making it way too complicated.

    Just like at pick up.

    All damage must be noted at drop off before the rental company moves the vehicle. Once the vehicle is moved, its accepted “as-is.” If the customer returns the vehicle out of hours, they are still responsible for any damage found prior to moving the vehicle.

    Makes Sense – Once the rental company moves the vehicle, they can cause the damage. Same standard that the return is held to.

  • Noah Kimmel

    I hear what you are saying, but I think some fairness needs to go to the car company as well. If you go to a place like ATL on a Thursday evening when all the businesspeople are dropping off cars, the line can be 30 cars deep. They need to move cars fast to have room for the next wave of people. To staff for that kind of peak + do a detailed check seems overly burdensome to me. 24 hours to find the damage seems reasonable enough as it still timeboxes them to a small window, especially if the customer has a way to report damage before renting.

    “moving the vehicle” is also strange to enforce…I can see people suing to get the lot footage, etc.

    but thanks for the idea, certainly room to improve

  • John Baker

    Noah… Applying the same logic, why don’t I get 24 hours to find damage?

    I had a guy at O’Hare in one of the major car rental places that no one there had ever paid for damaging a car. It always got charged back to the last customer even days later…

  • Nathan Witt

    I’ve advocated it before (and I’ve noticed that it’s done at LAX and DFW) But you need multiple cameras at the exit and entrance to cover all sides of the car. If you can show me a video of me driving out with an undamaged vehicle and driving back with a damaged one, it’s my fault, and I need to pay for the damage. If the condition is the same on both videos, it’s the company’s problem. But I’m curious to know from the legal eagles around: What’s the burden of proof here? Does the fact that the company sent me a bill for damage mean I need to prove that I didn’t do it, or does the company need to offer proof that I *did* do it in order to make me liable?

  • Barthel

    At the Detroit airport, a bus dropped me off at my rental car in a pitch black parking lot. There were no security lights and no moon. I got into the car, but it was some kind of Japanese car. I was renting on short notice, and no American car was available. I had never before been in anything but American cars. The dome light did not work, or I just didn’t know how to turn it on. I had no idea where the ignition was and no idea where the headlight switch was. It was pitch black inside the car. Fortunately, I had a Zippo lighter that enabled me to get on my way. I did not have any problems about damage to the car, however.

  • cahdot

    had a rental pick up in marseille at 5:30 pm pitch dark the guy said here are the keys got to the car and i started pictures saw the driver side sideswiped so went to get attendant he said yes we know and marked it used the car returned it and the attendant looked at it got under the front bumper and said look at this 198 euros of damage and said sign this we did not and awaiting the fight we willhave i did not take pix of the underside of the front passenger bumper!!!!!!nuts

  • just me

    “The solution: If you have the time, insist on a dry, clean rental car, then drive it into a well-lighted area and take pictures of it before accepting the keys.”

    And how do you drive the car without the keys?

  • just me

    We are the government. You as individual cannot negotiate anything! – even with your own cat. Regulation is to organize in a civil and equitable way the life of the society and in particular the behaviour of non-humans such as corporations.

    Without regulation ? – how do you think the USA would look like without the Constitution? Constitution is the regulation too.

    I am sick and tired of all those anti-regulation sentiments which only display arrogant ignorance and inability to analyze life as it happens. Of course some things should not be regulated – but inanimate corporations must be regulated – they have no sole and no decency. And you cannot rely on super expensive and slow legal system to enforce any contracts which you never negotiated. Walking away is not an option – otherwise one would need walk away from life. Try to walk away from contract of carriage when you need to get from NYC to LAX by tomorrow.

  • DZN1

    Seriously; I’ve rented over 300 rental cars in the past decade and yes, many of them were in dark parking lots but there’s an easy solution. I used to bring a flashlight to look over the car for major dents / scratches / cigarette burns (don’t forget to check the windshield for cracks), but now… I use my iPhone as a flashlight. It’s bright, most people have smartphones, the iPhone comes with a flashlight app from Apple (it’s available off the lock screen), and it takes 2-3 minutes. The ones where they have a large scrape underneath the bumper and only visible if you jack up the car… well, those are pretty hard to catch.

  • Grant Ritchie

    With apologies to the Mexican bandit in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, “Keys? We ain’t got no keys. We don’t need no keys. I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ keys!” :-)

  • judyserienagy

    There’s little doubt in my mind that the car rental companies rent to you in the dark and accept your return in the dark for a reason. They should be ashamed of themselves. Personally, I’ve not had a problem, but I rent with a very strong credit card and I think that keeps ’em in line a bit. Regulation is never the answer, you can’t regulate ethics.

    An educational campaign is probably the best bet. Perhaps the personal insurance companies and the credit cards that offer insurance should get together and let people know what’s going on. It’s pretty simple: if you receive a bill or a charge on your card reflecting damage that you didn’t cause, react strongly right away and usually the rental car company will back off. Customer awareness would go a long way towards stamping out the predatory practices of some of the companies.

  • LonnieC

    Your suggestions are excellent. Sound a lot like regulation. And who will regulate? Sounds a lot like government. We’re stuck with an imperfect system, but one that can be a help.

  • KanExplore

    Regulation should deal with safety and fraud. When it tries to micromanage operations, it becomes stifling and expensive to both the corporation and the consumer. This is an industry where there is enough evidence of fraud that criminal prosecution may be warranted, rather than regulation. Regulation inevitably invites unintended consequences that must be weighed against the values it wants to achieve. Too frequently that doesn’t happen. So sorry you’re sick and tired of my arrogant ignorance. I hope you are feeling better soon. For my part I’ll avoid insults and name calling.

  • just me

    Well – what name calling and insults – as you said it is me who is sick. Is it really an insult to you if I am sick of your take on things?
    How is it that micro-management of your life by government that has to obey the Constitution is bad, but micro-management by a private institution that does not have to obey the constitution is good?
    One example: any governmental institution must obey your Constitutional right – none of the private institutions has to unless there is specific regulation for that.
    Prosecution instead of regulation does not work for great many reason. Regulation usually has administrative means of enforcement; prosecution requires a costly and lengthy process.
    A trivial example: the federal law requires that swimming pool pump above certain size needs to be energy efficient. There is a state that hates everything federal and that has against regulation majority. That state when forced to implement that federal law did it by making it a statutory fraud for a pool contractor to install an illegal pump, but it limited the prosecution of that fraud only to the discretion of the State’s AG who declines to prosecute and did not prosecute any single case because he is busy prosecuting $2.00 shoplifting cases.
    Another example: illegal telemarketing telephone calls to your DO-NOT-CALL listed phone were nealry stamped out by the then majority of for regulation people. The Do-not-call law was introduced and perfected and you the individual had right to take the illegal caller to court and have them pay $500 per every illegal call. After in many states against regulation majority came to power they immediately modified the state law taking away your right to defend yourself and move exclusive discretionary prosecution was granted to State’s AG – who has great many “better” things to do. At the same they passed the law that prevents legislator’s, judges and other official telephone numbers from being ever reached by the illegal calls, and prevented you from obtaining the list of the calls marked by you from the telephone company. Sure there is good excuse – we are protecting you from having to prosecute the prank caller who calls you 5 times a day and 7 times during dinner; or by the way we also protect your wife when she calls from her lover’s bed to tell you to pick-up kids from school because she is busy.
    Do not get me started with many examples how poor;y regulated Health Insurance companies, in particular those that were allowed to come to exist during Reagan years messed up our health care system and are cheating us and shortening our lives with impunity. The Medicare starts looking like the best health insurance around -not matched by any post-Reagan commercial outfit. If you are a supermen healthy I bet you have no clue why? Regulation makes Medicare a better insurance now. ACA regulations make commercial health insurance better. Of course there is more work to be done, and there are plenty of examples out there that prove that poorly regulated commercial health insurance does not work for the people. After all our health care system is #35 – so there is plenty to learn from the 34 systems – in particular from the #1. But do you know which one it that? There are many great things that were not invented in our country, and there are many great things that were invented in our country and actually build this country to become the greatest power and enriched nearly all its people. But very specific political fraction is destroying things that made America Great. One of them is regulations.
    Any institutional behaviour that makes our lives more difficult than necessary needs to be regulated by We The People. Safety and fraud is just a tip of the iceberg and it is a politically efficient label. Of course one needs to watch out for over regulation.
    Nobody yet proved that business is stifled or limited in its ability to develop because of regulation – it is a hoax hogwash claim.
    Lack of regulation and drive for privatization has only one real objective and one final effect — to limit Constitutional rights of the people and to allow fraud, cheating and discrimination of all kind – because it makes more money.

  • Carchar

    I tried to vote, but I got an ad page with no way to get out of it except exiting the whole article.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Thanks, Carch.

    I passed your report on to Chris. He suggests that, in future, to facilitate reporting glitches like this, you can also use our “Letter to the editor” form at http://elliott.org/letter-to-the-editor/, or email either him at elliottc@gmail.com, or me at gritchie9@gmail.com. Thanks again!

  • John McDonald

    after reading all the horror stories of using Dollar rent a car, I had car booked with them thru a wholesaler which ended up being with Dollar.

    On recent trip actually took 1/2 dozen photos of cars rented with other companies (eg Hertz), but was tired & forgot in this case with Dollar.

    Had the misfortune of flying American into San Fran with lots of bags. Had just been skiing.

    American were good, but very poorly designed new terminal at SFO (what were the architects thinking-don’t they think about how people actually get out of the airport?)

    Had to go downstairs to collect bags & to our surprise, couldn’t take smart carts up escalators, so had to get elevator. One elevator for 50+ people to go upstairs, which took forever. Then had to walk across to another escalator, which again didn’t take smart carts, so had to wait to use another separate elevator. Then had to get a train to rental cars.

    This all took an hour & so just wanted to get out of the place as it was 11.30pm by this stage. Didn’t go over car & it was very dark.(wouldn’t have felt very safe if a single women)

    Parked car at hotel & discovered a big white mark on dark colored car at front bumper.

    Went & got some toothpaste from hotel & preceeded to cut away the white paint with the very abrasive toothpaste. Took 3 goes, but eventually could not see any white paint.

    Moral of story is:-
    1) always do walk around of rental car & if dark, take photos
    2) don’t use San Fran airport if have lots of luggage & need a rental car.