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.

I’ve never come across a case where a car rental company dropped a claim and then reinstated it. That’s really odd.

Here’s what should have happened: When you returned your vehicle, a National employee should have walked around the car with you, noting any damage. If you spotted a fender-bender, you could have begun the claims process immediately. Contacting you weeks later doesn’t make National’s claim any more credible. Offering to let it go — and then making a “U”-turn — makes it lose all credibility, in my opinion.

Not only would an appeal to someone higher up at National or its owner, Enterprise, make sense (you can find them on my customer service wiki, On Your Side, but you should also copy the Texas Department of Insurance. I’m sure it would be interested in this questionable claim.

Even if National had persisted, you could have asked for documentation that the car had been damaged while you were renting it. I seriously doubt the company could have furnished you with that proof.

I contacted National on your behalf. A representative called you and said that the damage was done to the car before you rented it. You’d think they’d notice something like that before you picked up the car, don’t you?

National has dropped its claim for good.

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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  • SirElmo60

    “A representative called you and said that the damage was done to the car before you rented it. You’d think they’d notice something like that before you picked up the car, don’t you?”

    If this was the true case, why wasn’t the damage noted when it was rented?  Surely it would have been visible.  It sounds more like it was something that happened after it was returned and when National was challenged on the claim, came up with this lame excuse.

    Even though they have agreed to drop it, I would still suggest sending a letter to the State Insurance Department explaining the situation.  Could still be a case of attempted insurance fraud.  If anything, it would be documentation with the department for anyone else having problems with National in the future.

  • cjr001

    I agree, particularly in reporting this to state agencies.

    While we can all give out the usual spiel about how rental companies shouldn’t even be able to make such claims long after a car is returned, it is also well past time that a pusher to a higher authority be made.

  • AutoSlash

    Thanks to Chris for highlighting this incident. has published an in-depth article on avoiding these sorts of claims which can be found here:

    We even offer a service where you can email your pictures and we’ll keep them on file in case of a bogus claim from the rental company.

  • Raven

    Glad that National did the right thing in the end, but how could the car be that damaged and the OP not notice? This makes my confidence in National’s record keeping fall off the map!

  • Bill H.

    Gotta ask –  Did you get that in writing Chris?

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I would also suggest copying the letter to the State Attorney General’s office, for the same reason.

  • Asiansm Dan

    It’s a scam. Why say “the damage was done to the car before you rented ” after the protest and Chris intervention. National tried to cash in at least 2 claims. Who know that National don’t pull the same trick on other customers.

  • Chris in NC

    Call me paranoid, but something doesn’t seem quite right here. In fact, I wonder if National made up a story to try and save face.

    A comment on the taking photos part. In lieu of a time stamped photo, I simply take 8-10 photos of the car and include the person who is checking in the car in the photos.

  • tjh001

    I have always used exclusively Enterprise and this happened to me as well..knowing that National does the same thing makes me want to switch permanently!

  • Dave Lieberman

    “Oh crud, it’s in the media. Time to spin the Wheel Of Excuses, boys and girls! Wheel of Excuses, turn, turn, turn; tell us the excuse that we must learn. Oh, look! The car magically travelled back in time and sustained $2000 worth of damage before the customer rented it! WOO HOO! Oh yeah, uh, sorry we tried to nail your insurance carrier for $2000.”

  • MVFlyer

    Kinda makes you wonder–did National drop the claim against the OP because they scammed another renter into paying it?

  • Cheryl

    Seriously, a bumper and a head light and the renter did not see that?  I agree, National is doing some fancy foot work!

  • Josh

    Ridiculous — while the customer should definitely take photos before and after (I always do now, even if that means holding up the works in the rental or return area), it’s the rental company who should have to provide their own timestamped photos from before and after the rental, clearly showing the alleged damage, before even being allowed to pursue a claim.  That may have been unreasonable 20 years ago, but digital cameras are dirt cheap now with no per-photo cost as with film.

    I’m not a lawyer, but there has to be some legal concept that applies here.  Just like you have a duty to mitigate your damages (if someone breaks your house window, and you don’t bother to cover it for weeks, letting rain and snow damage the house further, they may not be responsible for that), if the car’s owner has a way to clearly prove damage, but chooses not to do so, the presumption has to be in favor of the word of the one saying they didn’t do the damage.  But maybe that’s why I’m not a lawyer…

  • LarryB

    Stop to take pictures every time I rent and return a car?

    The lengths we have to go to to prevent companies from stealing from us these days are completely absurd.

    I’m also waiting for someone to show up and tell us that you’ve got to accept responsibility if you DON’T take pictures.

  • Clare

    Ditto both Josh and LarryB–if the agency wants to claim that you damaged their car, the burden is legally on them to prove it!  They not only have to prove that damage was done; they have to be able to show that it was YOU who did it.  If they want you to pay up, but can’t document that the car was fine before you rented it, and that it was damaged when you returned it… invite them to discuss the matter in front of a judge. 

    Just be sure that when the judge rules in your favor (which of COURSE he will), he notes in writing on his judgment that he awards you court-costs as well.  These huge rental companies won’t suffer a bit if they have to pay them to you, but it’s the principle of the thing: you shouldn’t be out one thin dime, and these thieves shouldn’t come out even. 

  • Joe Farrell

    This one is really pretty simple:

    You send a letter back to the rental company.  Two can play the game:

    “I recently received your claim for damage to a rental vehicle for my client XXX.  Your claim fails to meet any reasonable standards for acceptable claims.  You have failed to timely present a claim; all claims for damages need to be made within 30 days of close out of the rental agreement according to my client’s rules.  Your claim does not meet that time deadline and is hereby rejected.

    Next, you fail to produce any evidence of the reduction in value of the vehicle, the original purchase price, proof that you went with the lowest cost bidder for repairs, no photographs before and after that are dated providing proof of damage by me during the rental, a rental history supporting a loss of use claim, a facility rental history detailing the days you could have rented the vehicle due to damage, nor is there any evidence that XXX rented the vehicle at the time the damage was done to the vehicle.

    Thus, for all of the foregoing reasons, your claim is denied.  Since you have failed to timely present a claim, any further submissions will be rejected for failing to timely present a claim.”

    I have actually sent that letter to Alamo, Enterprise and Budget on behalf of a client and never heard from them again.  You are welcome to use it –  

  • Carver


    I suspect it was your letterhead that worked the magic.  You could have sent them a recipe for biscuits and gravy and it would have had the same effect.

  • Joe Farrell

    My letterhead [and yours, Carver, I suspect] has less and less effect every year I fear.  Companies just don’t care anymore about lawyers, they got ’em, you got ’em – everybody has them. . . . I speak with companies via letterhead and or email which clearly identifies me as a lawyer and they just care less and less –

  • Oussama

    Damaged before it was rented. So the inspection did not reveal any damage, the car was used several times and no one noticed and finally returned and no one noticed. Must be the Twilight Zone of car rental.

  • Dr Bill Toth

    Why is it that these stories so often involve Enterprise, national and alamo?

  • davork
  • Tampa_Jim

    I recently rented a car from Hertz at Tampa International Airport. The Hertz desk is on the first floor of a parking garage adjacent to the airport terminal. After I took care of the paperwork, the agent pointed to the elevator and told me that the car was on the 5th floor and wrote the parking space number on the contract envelope. When I got off the elevator, the first thing that I noticed was that the lighting was so bad that I could just barely see the space numbers on the walls. When I got to the car, it had some obvious scratches and small dents. Just then, a Hertz employee walked by and I asked her to note the existing damage. She disappeared for a moment and came back with a form that is used to note damage. As we walked around the car, I pointed out what I had seen. Her trained eyes spotted even more damage that would have been obvious in good lighting. She signed the form and gave me a copy.

    I am certain that had the Hertz employee not found the damage that I couldn’t see, I would be on the hook for hundreds of dollars for the pre-existing damage to the vehicle.

    If rental car companies want to charge customers for damage to vehicles, they should be required to provide good lighting in their pickup areas and have employees readily available to review the condition of each vehicle before it leaves their facility.

  • MarkieA

    I agree wholeheartedly, but doubt that these cases ever get to court. Even though they are your agents, insurance companies seem to do what they want when it comes to deciding whether or not to go to court. They consider the time and expense of getting to the real truth not quite worth what you think it is, and they’ll likely settle “nuisance claims” even though you want to pursue the matter in court.

  • Sershev

    Sometimes it is really hard to notice damage. One time I
    picked up a car from Hertz and I walked several times around the car trying to
    see if there is any prior damage. It was dark on the lot and rainy, the car was
    all covered in rain drops and after 12 hours flight it seemed like a brand new.
    Next morning I was in shock when I returned to the car and it was sunny and the
    car was dry. It looked like someone hammered it with a baseball bat all around:
    roof, sides. Good thing Hertz already placed stickers at each dent acknowledging
    prior damage.

  • SirElmo60

    I only rent from Hertz and I am a gold member.  I have never had any problems with Hertz like what is described by some of the users.  I had one rental awhile ago where the car was having problems.  I had come into the Boston airport and had to drive about 50 miles to a meeting.  When I called Hertz, they said they would take care of it and send out a flatbed tow truck with a new car (an upgrade even for the inconvenience) in less than 90 minutes (came from the airport).  When they took the car, I had forgotten something in there and didn’t realize it.  When they were checking the car in, they found it and called to let me know and had someone drive it out to me the next day.  It was from service like that that has made me a Hertz only renter.