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.”

Famous last words.

When I returned the vehicle, an agent pointed to a dent on the driver’s side bumper. Although I had to bend down to see it, it was definitely there. At the same time, I know for a fact that I did not damage the vehicle, nor did the damage occur at any time while I was with the vehicle.

We had to run to catch a plane, but we indicated to the agent that we wanted to dispute any claim. National has sent us three letters since then, insisting on being paid $464 for the damage, including a threat to report me to a collection agency if I didn’t.

If I really believed I caused the damage I would pay them in a heartbeat. It’s not about me wanting to avoid paying for my mistake; it’s about not knowing if the mistake was mine or theirs. Can you help me? — Carrie Finegan, Atlanta

Answer: National should have been able to provide you with time-stamped photos of your car after your rental, showing the damage, along with a repair bill. I reviewed your correspondence with the company, and I can see the problem: You were asking for a time-stamped photo of the car before you rented it that might prove your theory that you didn’t cause the damage.

In a perfect world, car rental companies would photograph their vehicles after each rental, but in real life, they only take snapshots when they want to send you a bill.

By now, you know that taking a picture of the car before your rental is absolutely essential. Car rental companies that used to shrug off little dents and dings are now pursuing their customers for every little scratch. You could buy optional insurance, but that often doubles the cost of your rental (and indeed, it’s a huge moneymaker for car rental agencies).

You could have also given yourself a little extra time when you returned the car in Denver, so that you could speak with a manager about the damage. I’m skeptical of any claim on damage that you have to bend over or get on a ladder to see. I’m not joking about the ladder part — I’ve had two recent cases where agents inspected the roof for damage and made a claim.

At the same time, I understand National’s point of view. According to its records, the car was damaged while it was in your possession. Although I don’t necessarily subscribe to the “guilty until proven innocent” approach, they have a business to run, and if we don’t like it, we can always rent from another company.

I didn’t send this case to National because I thought you weren’t responsible. When I read the email chain between you and the company, I felt the representative with whom you were communicating was being short and dismissive. If nothing else, I felt National owed you a more thorough explanation of why you were liable. Instead, it sent you one-sentence replies. That’s not good customer service.

National dropped its claim.

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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  • john4868

    “I know for a fact that I did not damage the vehicle, nor did the damage occur at any time while I was with the vehicle.”
    Really… the vehicle was never out of your sight. You never parked it anywhere and did anything while it was in your care? I find it highly unlikely that you can make that statement truthfully.
    Sorry but my personal car has door dings on it where others have opened a car door into it and walked away. It happens but if it happens to a rental car in your care, you are responsible for it. In this case, you admitted the dent was there and it wasn’t on your paperwork when you picked up the vehicle. That’s all the proof that National needs to pursue a claim.
    Glad that National was beaten into submission by the National press.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Yup.  Thinking it didn’t happen during your rental and proving it didn’t happen during your rental are two different things.  I’ve always had pretty good luck with rental cars as far as the agency not making a claim over a 1/2″ scratch, but I’m going to start meticulously photo graphing the car before each rental.

    Perhaps a web-site where renters can post about damage claims by rental location might be a useful tool. If one agency has a large number of claims relative to nearby locations, that would send a red-flag to potential renters.

  • Raven_Altosk

    Don’t you love how 90% of these car rental problems have an “estimate” that is just below the common deductible of $500?

    Total scam.

  • RITom

    My last car too had dings from the mall shoppers and from the person that tapped my rear end while in a parking lot.  If car rental agencies want the renter to pay for every ding then they need to TURN THE LIGHTS ON FOR INSPECTION.  When I take pictures there are no dings because the camera NEVER has enough light or the right light to capture the ding.  So it is not in the picture when I rent it. 
    On national rental company in FL used to put stickers over every ding that it found before you rented the car.  New dings were your responsibility.  But that just shows you that you can not charge $500 for every ding, because they are NOT repairing them.
    Yes rentals should take pictures and the customer should have a print off of the pictures that they can compare to the actual vehicle.  The cameras can not pick up everything.  Just like the roof and under mount chips.  How many of us have been provided a ladder to take pictures of the roof or a dolly to get under the car.  WHERE THERE IS STILL NO LIGHTS

  • Kotch11

    I’m kind of wish John Baker.  Rental cars are parked in parking lots at hotels and restaurants, by valets. You could have touched a post and got a ding like that.  Also my personal car has many scratches from door openings, etc.  Every phone has a camera nowadays, so snap those photos on pickup

  • BillCCC

    Not much to add. Yes you should note every little ding and dent on the car before you leave the lot. The pre-inspection form that I turn in and have the attendent sign is usually completely filled.

    A company should have no problem taking photos as a car is leaving the lot. This might cut into revenue though since from what I ahve read here the small damage is rarely if ever repaired.

  • Bob M

    Taking a picture of the car prior to leaving the rental lot is great, however, if there is a small dent, near the bottom of the bumper or elsewhere that is hard to see how will this appear in the photo, it probably won’t so back to square one. Also, I wonder how many people check to make sure there is a spare tire, and the tools to fix it. You could be liable if the tire or tools are missing. Also be sure to check the interior, for any damage.

  • sirwired

    For goodness sakes, get yourself a Gold or Platinum or Signature card (even some STUDENT cards are “Platinum”), use it for the rental, and then you don’t have to worry any more.  The worst that can happen is that you’ll have to float the costs until the credit card company cuts you a check.  (And I’ve found Visa “Enhancement Services” to be very friendly and prompt in paying claims.)

  • mbgaskins

    You should not have to worry about noteing every little ding and dent on a car before you leave the lot nor should these become an issue. These are normal wear and tear in my opinion since every car gets those over time.  If you can’t see it on a quick and brief walk around then its normal wear and tear.

    Also, I would NOT pay the bill until the rental car company shows the PAID repair bill.  They are not really damaged until they pay to get it fixed.  This simple step would keep the dishonest claims out.


    C.Y.A.  In truth, almost everyone who reads this column already has an adequate digital camera in their phone.  Taking a few or even many digital photos of your rental car, BEFORE YOU DRIVE AWAY, then emailing them to yourself, is a great idea. Send them to yourself and archive them for at least 90 days after you return the car.
    As rental car companies face ever tightening budgets, the temptation to overlook minor stuff as you take the car and “discover” the damage when you return rises.  I’m not sure what internal protections companies have against such illegitimate activities, but the pressure for profit is not going to make it a priority.
    As a photographer, I have qualified as an expert in court, but you don’t need to be that sophisticated. 
    1. Take a series of photos of each existing damage area, starting very close to clearly show the damage and move back in successive steps to show the surroundings. INCLUDE THE AGENT if you can, maybe pointing to the damage.
    2. Fear Not, the agent should be willing to move the car to a well lighted place for photos and you might even insist they move it so the light is coming across any problem areas at almost 90 degrees so the damage will be clearly visible.  If they balk at your taking photos, ask them to destroy your contract and go to the next rental company.  Saving $6.00 a day is nothing when faced with a few hundred dollars in unwarranted charges.
    3. Address the shots to your personal email and put them into a folder for a while to save having to store them long term on your phone.
    4. Take a few again when you return and be sure the agent knows what you’re doing.  Being pro-active here may dissuade an unscrupulous individual from targeting you. Sadly, he’ll have lots more right behind you who arrive unaware.

  • mszabo

    On the one hand that is true, but really how much proof is in a digital photograph?  For some of the unusual get under the car or climb on the roof photos,  can you really tell the difference between one generic white ford focus and another?  Timestamps are pretty darn meaningless as well.  I guess at that point it comes down to fraud/slander accusations.  I always take digital photos, but really don’t see them as much actual proof. 

  • bc

    National is pretty diligent about the post-rental inspection. I noticed last time I rented with them. They do a slap shot job on the pre-rental inspection, literally glancing over the vehicle as it goes out and when I returned it they went over it quite thoroughly. The agent was pointing all sorts of things including getting down on his knees in slacks on wet ground so he could see the underside. I took a video of the car during the pre-rental inspection (which even included shots of the employee inspecting it) and showed him the items he questioned were already on the car. 

    This is such jerky customer service. 

  • Nancy Dickinson

    It’s funny how these rental car companies drop their claim the moment someone is involved in an official capacity.  If someone had legitimately damaged my car, I wouldn’t back down to anyone!  Sounds to me as though these are fraudulent claims…

  • Michael__K

    This case is not about a door ding but a bumper ding.

    Depending on the exact location and nature of the damage, and where the car was parked, it’s conceivable that the types of scenarios you’re implying could be ruled out.  Or possibly not.

    In any case, not every renter is going to even be physically capable of getting on their knees and exploring the lower portions of their vehicle in detail at the time of pickup.  Which underscores the inadequacy of the “if it wasn’t noted in the original paperwork then it wasn’t there at pickup” method.

  • Michael__K

    On national rental company in FL used to put stickers over every ding that it found before you rented the car.  New dings were your responsibility.


    Some U-Haul locations (at least in NY City) used the sticker method, at least as of several years ago.  

    What happened to me and to other renters I witnessed returning vehicles with literally 100+ stickers was that a sticker somewhere would fall off and the location would use that as the basis for a damage claim.

  • twres

    In response to the second part of your comment – companies are not required to repair the vehicle.  If you damage it you will be required to compensate the company to make them whole again, however it is up to them whether to use those funds to repair the car or not.

  • Sunnykm

    Maybe along with pre-rental photos we could also get a CarFax like printout of all previous claims on the vehicle. It would be easy for a small fender dent to be “found” more than once upon rental return.

    I not sure if the rental companies actually fix dents that they charge the renters for when there is a claim. Does anyone know if all dents are fixed before being returned to the fleet?

  • y_p_w

    “Making them whole” is a completely different can of worms I don’t think the car rental agencies want to get into.  Now that car rentals (and their loss-damage partners) are asking for loss of use, they better be able to document repairs and how long they were our of service. Also, what’s to prevent them from double-dipping if there are two dents  and charge for each one separately even though the cost of repair is the same.

    Often the rental agencies just keep a dented car in service.  If they do that, then “loss of use” shouldn’t be allowed by law.  If the repair is delayed, are they going to charge for loss of use if they deliberately wait for a slow period where the car won’t be missed? Eventually repairing a bunch of small dings used to be a cost of doing business, but now they’re looking to the customer because it improves the bottom line.

    There are laws that vary from state to state.  I’m pretty sure that some state laws include provisions that charges for repairs must reflect the actual cost of repairs.

  • Jami Rutherford

    I’ve actually found on several occasions that my iPhone 3G could not adequately capture significant dents and dings in rental cars when I was trying to photograph them (especially at night). And at small, regional airports that means documenting everything by hand, schlepping back into the terminal and getting the agent to sign off on it.

    Frankly, I hate that part of the routine of renting a car has come to include a CSI-grade documenting of every scratch to protect one’s self from false claims. There has to be a better way……

  • MarkKelling

    Most are not repaired.  Only those that effect drivabilty or safety.

  • Charlie Funk

    But then again, we caution EVERY client to take detailed photos of EVERY rental car, preferably with a car rental company employee IN THE PICTURE.  We also advise them to take photos when they turn in the car, again preferably with a retal car company employee in the picture.

  • cjr001

    I’ve had to deal with Visa’s claims department myself after I had a rental car get damaged. I’m not sure I’d call them prompt, but they would eventually get around to answering my questions and giving status updates on the claim.

  • jerrymandel

    The franchise places commit insurance fraud. They file a claim on their own insurance company and also collect from the renters.

  • y_p_w
  • Buck

    Our last trip was to Providence, R.I.  Arrived after midnight.  Took the time to check the car leaving.  Was not very hard to see damage on a white Altima with over 30,000 miles.  Exterior had large black marks on the C pillar.  Exterior was a mess.  Interior was clean but worn.  At that hour of the morning I was not going to argue particularly since the desk was not manned when we arrived.  The only staff breezed through with “be back.”  7 minutes later I was not amused when she showed up.  Next day noticed four different brands of tires and , of course, four different tread patterns.  Then found the phillips head screw stuck in the right front.  Called Hertz that was telling me they would only do one thing which was return for another car.  If I had a flat the it was my problem ad seemed to be telling me I would be paying for a tire!  Do I need to tell you it was not easy to return a car from Maine to R.I.?  While I dealt with the desk my wife started clearing the car.  She found an incident report the three months before this same car had a screw in it’s right front tire and the tire had gone flat.  Same screw?  Replacement car had 30,000 miles on it along with every bug collected between PA and R.I. on the front bumper and a terrible black mark on the “C” pillar.  Hertz was consistent!  I have used Hertz in the USA and Europe before but never, never, ever again.  The contract was prepaid so I just was not going to mess with it.  I usually have a discussion with the offending company but this was so far beyond the pale the home office would have considered me a whiner.

  • jerrymandel

    No, it didn’t cover what I wrote. It covered double dipping by billing different renters not by defrauding insurance companies. Please read both * carefully.*

  • y_p_w

    I get that.  However, regardless of whether or not it’s an insurance company or two renters, double-dipping is still a case where multiple parties pay separately (and full-price) for what’s ostensibly something that only has to be paid for once.

    Suppose one renter is responsible for a dent, and the vehicle is kept in service where a second renter is responsible for another dent to the same door panel.  Is it ethical for the rental agency to seek repair costs from each renter for the full cost of the individual repair in a vaccum?  I’ve dealt with door dent repairs, and the costs are often the same whether it’s one or two dents, where the primary cost is of disassembly/reassembly of the door panel and repainting the entire panel.  Personally I think it should be fraud to request payment that doesn’t reflect an actual repair cost, and fraud if the rental agency collects more from two renters than the total cost of repairs and/or loss of use.

  • jerrymandel

    I appreciate your viewpoint about double dipping but only one of those is insurance fraud.

  • Mel65

    I, for one, am tired of every single one of these requests for help stating two common themes, “I know it didn’t happen while the car was in my possession” and “We had to hurry to catch our plane so we didn’t have time to take care of it then….” If you don’t think that stuff happens when you’re not around, you’re naive and kinda stupid and if you don’t allow yourself enough time for contingencies so that you have to run off before you can handle things, then, well you’re just kinda stupid.  Sh*t happens, and yet these “loyal readers” are always surprised when it happens to them.  A lot of these may be scams, but when there is a legitimate claim that gets dropped only because of Chris’s involvement, well then, who’s scamming whom?

  • Barbara N

    If you’ve got a camera..take your own photos too before you drive away….an ounce of prevention…only takes a min.