A rental car bill I don’t think I deserve

Zhu/Shutterstock
Zhu/Shutterstock
After a grill falls off her rental car, Alamo sends her a bill for $669. Does she have to pay?

Question: I’m hoping you can give me some advice about a damage claim that my car rental company states I am financially responsible for. I rented a car from Alamo in Reno, Nev., recently. The paperwork was signed and initialed as the person at the counter indicated. Then I was escorted to the garage where the cars were kept.

My husband walked around the car and didn’t notice any damage. I drove from the airport rental location directly to our hotel in Reno, where the car was parked for two days. Several days later, when we left Reno to drive to Las Vegas, I noticed that the plastic grill on the front of the car was uneven. My husband inspected and found that it was loose but still connected.

About an hour outside of Las Vegas there was a scraping noise and I heard something drop off the car. Assuming (correctly) that it was the plastic grill, I drove back to retrieve the piece. The next day I called the Reno Alamo location to tell them this piece had fallen off the car.

I explained that until we drove from Reno to Las Vegas the car had been in the hotel garage, that I was the only driver and there were no accidents to account for any damage. The Alamo representative said there was nothing she could do other than to tell us we were responsible for any damage to the vehicle.

It was obvious that a previous driver had damaged the vehicle and managed to hide that damage. When I pulled into the drop-off lane at Alamo, a representative with his handheld computer loudly asked what we had done to scratch the car up so badly. At that my husband and I got out of the car to ask him to show us what he was yelling about.

He pointed to some swirls in the paint finish that looked like car wash wear. We weren’t even aware of any scratches so we were quite shocked. Then he wrote up an “Express Incident Report” in which we reported the damage.

Now Alamo wants to charge me $669 for the damage. My credit card covered the $250 deductible, but my insurance company won’t cover the rest, saying that I shouldn’t have signed the incident report. How can I reverse this decision? — Mary Okincicas, Chicago

Answer: This isn’t an easy problem to fix because you signed a form acknowledging your responsibility when you returned the vehicle.

Of course, there were a few things you could have done to prevent this from happening. A pre-rental inspection is always a good idea. Take pictures of the car from every angle and also inside, and if there’s any damage, fill out a pre-rental report before you leave the lot. Make sure you get an employee to sign off on the form, and keep the paperwork in a safe place in case you need to refer to it later.

Had you done any of those things, then you wouldn’t be faced with a $669 bill for random scratches and a loose grill.
By the way, you can appeal a bill by sending a brief, polite email to one of Alamo’s executives.

Just for the record: The terms of your rental are clear. If you take the keys, you accept responsibility for the vehicle. But as it turns out, Alamo had the same problem you did — iffy paperwork. When it sent you the bill, the photocopied pictures of the damaged vehicle didn’t appear to be the one you rented. I thought that was enough reason to ask Alamo to give your case another review, just to make sure it had the right claim.

Alamo offered to zero out the remaining balance on your bill, an offer you accepted.

Did Mary Okincicas deserve to get the bill for damage to her car?

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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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  • Thoroughlyamused

    Haha, you know someone’s argument is crap when they have to resort to petty name calling.

    It’s obvious from your initial posting (“Alamo, what a shock”) & (“Is Alamo now finally admitting…”) that you believed from the start that Alamo was trying to pull a damage scam. It seems like your position on the topic is that rental car companies should never be allowed to charge for damage, no matter what the circumstance. That will never happen.

    My suggestion to you would be to stop renting cars completely. Take buses and taxis. Rental car agents already have to deal with difficult, entitled people all day long who show little or no gratitude. Dealing with one less of them would be a good thing all around.

  • Nathan Witt

    What if the rental car companies offered their “insurance” at a reasonable price? I think a lot of this kind of stuff has to do with what they try to charge for it. A couple of years ago, I rented a car in NYC, and the agent offered the CDW/LDW for $9 per day. At first I thought I heard wrong, so I asked again, to be sure. He said the coverage is defined and priced by state law. I took it, because $9/day is (to me) a fair price for the peace of mind the coverage brings, even though I’ve never damaged a rental car. But other places, the coverage seems to be somewhere between $25-$40/day, which seems like a little too much for the risk the company’s actually taking. Do any industry insiders know why it’s generally so expensive?

  • Thoroughlyamused

    There’s a couple reasons why it is admittedly very pricey. First of all, rental companies are businesses that make profits. Therefore, they have to price the CDW high enough to cover damages to rentals for those who do buy it, while still managing to make a profit at the same time. Keep in mind that in most cases, at least in the United States, when you buy CDW, the rental company waives their right to charge you for damage, in most situations up to a total loss of the vehicle (and yes, I’ve seen vehicles totaled, both with renters who did and did not have CDW). Being able to completely walk away from a damaged rental is not quite the same as filing a claim with your insurance company, paying your deductible, filing another claim with your credit card company, getting the 12 different documents needed for CC claims, finding out they don’t cover admin fees, loss of use, etc. Yes, you may eventually get the money back, but consider all the lost time and effort, not to mention paying the stuff they don’t cover and possible increases in your insurance premiums.

    Yes, there are credit cards that claim to cover everything on a primary basis, but not everyone has access to these and all credit cards have exclusions. Very few credit cards cover pickup trucks, for example, and no credit cards cover passenger or cargo vans (minivans are generally covered).

  • Nathan Witt

    ‘m not saying rental companies shouldn’t make profits. I’m saying that when the way you do that is through overpriced add-ons and fees, you shouldn’t be surprised when your customers are angry about it. Just for grins, I priced a compact car through Hertz at DFW for one weekend day (for next weekend) as an illustration: Rental: $17.49. Taxes & Fees: $21.42. LDW: $28.99. Total: $69.70. Never mind that the LDW charge is MORE than the rental fee – when the cost jumps from the $17.49 you planned to spend per day to almost $70, it’s easy to feel screwed.
    Maybe Hertz can’t make any money renting me a Focus for $17.49. I can’t see why not, since Hertz’s fleet appears to be keeping their cars longer than ever, but if they can’t make money at that rate, they shouldn’t offer it. I get that Hertz has no control over some of the taxes and fees, but it appears from the checkout screen that about $12 of it is to recover Hertz’s cost of doing business (title fee, two fees the airport charges Hertz, etc.).
    Prices for LDW may be high to cover damage done by the renters who opt for it, but based upon the condition of the cars I receive as rentals, I’m guessing the companies don’t fix most of the little things that they’d bill customers for. As for amin fees and loss-of-use fees, those sounds suspiciously like fees designed to punish me for not paying $28.99 for the LDW.

  • Thoroughlyamused

    If her insurance didn’t cover rentals or is liability only, all she would have had to do was fax the CC company the Declaration page proving that and then the credit card would become primary. There is some piece of the story we are missing here.

  • whatexit

    acr rental companies are in a cut throat business. These companies are virtually ‘forced’ to add fees and other terms in order to turn a profit.
    I am certain most of us have heard the expression “don’t worry, it’s a rental”…yes in the past, rental cars were abused by some renters. Car rental companies have cracked down on such abuse to the extent that the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme. Nowadays it seems car rental co’s hold renters responsible for things way beyond the control of their customers. Their reasoning for sending out bills for ‘damage’ or ‘loss of use’ is ” Sir/Ma’am, you signed the agreement. You took the car. It’s YOUR fault”..
    Not this trooper. Nope. Before I take possession of a rental car, I insist an agent from the store accompany me while I do a second walk around AND internal inspection of the vehicle. This includes the truck and engine compartment. If there is so much as a dirt spot or stain I require the agent note it on the paperwork. I make note of any scratches dings, dents, chips, etc. Yep, I can be a big pain in the rear, but I don’t take any chances. It takes 10 minutes to inspect the vehicle.
    The loose grille? Yep, I would have caught that and refused the vehicle.

  • whatexit

    CDW’s a a huge ripoff. That’s according to Consumer Reports. In fact CR warns people to not rent vehicles unless their auto insurance covers rentals in the insured person’s possession.

  • whatexit

    Most insurance policies will cover for damage to rental vehicles IF the renter has that type of coverage in their personal auto policy. It may be possible the OP’s insurance did not have such language in the policy.

  • Thoroughlyamused

    If you read what I wrote, I’m not debating the merits of CDW. I was responding directly to Cybersk8r where he claims the damage was pre-existing. Some people, like the OP in the article, seem to think that if you don’t see the damage happen, you aren’t responsible. I was reiterating that if CDW is declined, you agree to pay for anything that happens while the car was in your care, regardless of whether or not it was your fault. By declining CDW, you accept that risk and the consequences that may come along with it. I have a major issue with people who decide to take that risk, something happens, and then concoct ridiculous stories to get out of being responsible.

  • whatexit

    The doom and gloom of you consumer ripoff conspiracy theorists is remarkable..
    Nearly all issues regarding car rental issues vis a vis ‘damage’ are not a big concern if one has rental car coverage as part of the language of their personal auto policy

  • whatexit

    Yes. the general rule of thumb is if a consenting adult of sound mind signs a contract, it is binding. However there are instances where certain terms of the contract can be held ‘unconscionable’. Or “unreasonable”.

  • whatexit

    If a pebble dinged your personal car, it would be covered under the comprehensive portion of your policy.

  • whatexit

    Look, CDW is for people who have basic coverage on their personal vehicles.
    Most people who rent vehicles when traveling usually have the means to buy more comprehensive auto coverage. For people with that type of coverage CDW is unnecessary.

  • Thoroughlyamused

    Again, I’m not arguing the merits of CDW. I am simply stating that IF you decline CDW, you take full responsibility for whatever may happen to the car, excluding mechanical breakdowns and minor wear and tear. My issue is with people who decline CDW knowing full well there is risk involved, have something happen, then try to lie about it, like what the OP is doing here. Also, keep in mind that YOU, not your insurance co. or CC company, signed the rental agreement, meaning YOU are ultimately responsible if something happens to the car. When I had to go to the ER for pleurisy, my health insurance only covered a portion of the bill. Just because my health insurance didn’t cover it does not make the charges illegitimate, or make me not responsible for them. Same goes for rental cars.

  • Mel65

    I have to say, I don’t get it. As a gov. contractor, I travel a lot. I’ve rented cars in Reno, St.Louis, Honolulu, Dallas, DC,Las Vegas and Boston all multiple times (disclaimer:usually with my corporate membership which may or may not change things). But even when I travel for pleasure, it’s been the same.. I’ve never had anyone hard sell me, after a couple of polite “no thanks I’m covered” and I’ve never been dinged for any mysterious damage–or any damage at all. I turn the car in, get a receipt and a “good to go” and that’s the end of it. I have to wonder at some of the stories I read here–they seem awfully … I dunno….dramatic: belligerent returns people yelling at them, pushy counter agents snidely assuring them they BETTER take the insurance OR ELSE, poor innocent victimized renters who did nothing wrong and only drove on Sunday…to Church… Yes, I’m sure there are some rental operations that do maybe take advantage, but I have to believe that the majority are not. Based upon my own anecdotal experience of course. Maybe I’m just lucky….But I do believe that the OP is 100% responsible here and that Chris should have said, “you’re a grown up; take responsbility for what happens under your watch” and saved his advocacy for someone more legitimately a victim.