The Travel Troubleshooter: A “little dent” adds $500 to my car rental bill

Question: We rented a car from Enterprise in Phoenix. When we picked up the car, a representative inspected it with us. My husband noted a couple small marks, but she said we shouldn’t worry because “anything under four inches” was waived.

We drove on some dirt roads, so the car was quite dusty when we returned it and to say the representative eagerly went around the car like Sherlock Holmes looking for clues would be an understatement. She found a small scratch on the left rear bumper, which appeared to be possibly from someone backing into us, as we knew it wasn’t done by our usage.

Before one could blink, we were hauled over to the processing office and our $256 bill jumped to $772 — of course, taken from our credit card without our authorization. Trying to get through to the rep assigned to handle our claim is impossible as she never is available on the phone. But her assistant was very helpful in informing us that the bill for repairing what he even admitted from the photos was a small, quite insignificant flaw was more than $500.

When I challenged him on how in the world a small dent could cost $440 he said actually anything under a thousand from a shop is a bargain.

This is a total preplanned scam and the way the check-in rep went over ever square inch of the car with such enthusiasm there is little doubt these folks are being cut in for finding things wrong with the cars.

We are reasonable people and understand that even if someone backed into us if there was a small scratch we would be willing to pay a small amount to cover what is fair for repairing it. But more than $500, including an “administrative fee” is totally unacceptable. — Carri Schoeller, Orlando, Fla.

Answer: Your suspicions are understandable. Why would one employee waive you off, while another one goes over the car with a fine-tooth comb? And why deduct the $500 from your credit card immediately when the full repair costs aren’t known yet? Whatever happened to the damage estimate? Weren’t you entitled to receive a repair bill, detailing the work that had been done on your rental?

Unfortunately, your case is becoming all too common. Car rental companies don’t even wait for the paperwork. If there’s damage to your car, they charge you right away. Never mind procedure.

But there are three things about your story that I find troubling, and that Enterprise had nothing to do with. First, you found scratches on the car. Why didn’t you note them on your rental agreement? Talk is cheap. You can almost be guaranteed that the person checking you in won’t be handling your return. So what if the second employee doesn’t know about the four-inch rule?

Take pictures of your rental car and note all damage, no matter how small the dings, chips and scratches.

Second, did you say you’d gone off-roading in your rental? Most car rental agreements forbid drivers from taking their cars on an unpaved road. Even if they don’t, it’s a good idea to stay away from dirt roads in a rental car. The most common kind of car rental damage — the chipped window — can happen too easily when a car or truck in front of you kicks a pebble at you.

Finally, and perhaps most problematic, is that you agree that damage happened to your car while it was in your possession, though not by your usage. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter. If the car was dented when you had it, you’re responsible.

I think both parties made mistakes, but I wanted Enterprise to take another look at this damage claim. It did, and notified you that it had dropped the claim and refunded the $500.

(Photo: Cha zz Layne/Flickr)

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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  • Raven_Altosk

    Car rental companies give bonuses to employees who find damage. It’s the “baggage fee” of the rental business. 

    In most cases, I’d say follow up with a letter to the attorney general’s office in the state because what they are doing is pretty much insurance fraud. (Notice how the damage is always quite close to a common deductible?)

    However, if the OP really did go off-roading in the rental…well…then, as much as I hate to say it, but I’ve got to side with Enterprise on this one.

    (I feel dirty for saying that…)

  • Kevin Mathews

    I can’t say that going “off-roading” really has anything to do with the story at hand here.  While the op admitted to going off roading, they also stated that the “damage” that was done to the vehicle was not caused by that.
    The issue here is that the car rental company charged them before any true damage assessment could be performed on the vehicle.  There was no estimate, not repair bill, just a flat charge for the damage.  That’s what’s troubling with this story….

    I had to laugh when my wife and I rented a car on our Honeymoon.  The contract specifically stated that you must stay on Paved Roads.  Well, after driving around for a couple of day I realized that about half the road in Aruba are not paved, so that would have been extremely limiting.  Going on Dirt Roads isn’t a bad thing, you just have to drive carefully and don’t follow too close to anyone in front of you.

  • BillC

    If you admit that the damage happened while you have possession of the car the car rental company will immediately see dollar signs.

    Alway, always note all damage, no matter how minor, prior to accepting the car no matter what an employee of the agency might say. This is your only defense against a claim for pre-existing damage on return.

  • Chris in NC

    Funny thing… while these stories all have common denominators. The same car company names come up again and again and again.

  • Chris in NC

    Don’t be too hard on the OP for driving on a dirt road in the west. We have property in CO and frankly, many of the rural roads (including some marked state highways) are all dirt roads. Our property is on a “dirt” road. Unlike urban areas, maintained dirt roads are commonplace in AZ. Now if they were driving 4WD roads, or Jeep trails, that is a different story

  • Fishplate

    Whenever I rent a car these days, I mark all four sides as scratched, and get an employee to initial the form, including their copy.  You can always find something to back it up, just like they do when you return the car.

    If it’s scratched when it goes out, nothing is your fault when it comes back.

  • jikinn

    The car rental companies have gotten weirder and weirder about the damage form.

    A car I rented a couple of weeks ago for business had two small dents just above the front license plate. I took a photo of the damage and marked it on the form, even though the rep said they were too small to matter and that damage on the bumpers didn’t count anyway. So far, I haven’t heard anything from them. I have read in Chris’s forum that people sometimes hear from car rental companies many weeks after the rental, so I’m keeping the receipts and photos for a while.I also rented a car last week for a family visit, and the rep wanted me to sign the “no damage” form at the counter. I said I needed to see the car first, but she said that if there was damage, I could bring the form back inside. The form had a “ruler” showing how long four inches is and a black circle showing how big a dent has to be before it can be marked on the form. They also told me that any damage to the bumpers doesn’t matter. I did find a scratch on the roof that was longer than four inches, so I took the form back inside. The rep was very surprised that I had found any damage and asked me if I was sure, but then she did put the forms back together (so the writing on the top copy would copy to the bottom two copies) and mark the damaged area. So far, I have not heard anything from them, so I hope there are no issues.

  • cjr001

    “And why deduct the $500 from your credit card immediately when the full repair costs aren’t known yet?”

    $500 is the standard deductible.

    As I’ve said before, I’ve had a rental from Enterprise suffer actual damage in need of repair. This was the amount they required, and I had to sign the paperwork for it.

    Trust me, the employees know their rules. And it appears that in too many locations, they also know how to bend, break, and overly enforce the rules for their own financial benefit.

    There are far too many of these stories, Chris. What needs to happen is for people to go beyond simply receiving a drop of claim and their money back. These employees and locations need to be gone after legally to force them to stop these practices.

  • Charles Lichtenwalner

    Last month I rented a Nissan Altima Hybrid from Hertz at Palm Springs Airport.  When I received a questionnaire from Hertz, I replied as follows, partly because of the dented condition of the car: ‘The check-in clerk was very pushy trying to sell us insurance, a costly upgrade to a bigger car, fuel, etc. The clerk emphasized the need for full insurance as the car could be damaged.  When I saw the car damage report attached to the rental agreement, it showed damage on every surface of the car already.  I questioned the clerk about being rented a “damaged” car and he scoffed saying it’s a rental car – what do you expect. That made me so nervous about an insurance claim I spend 15 minutes photographing every inch of the car on the Hertz lot to document its damaged condition when I picked it up.  The car was a hybrid and there was no owner’s manual to explain its peculiarities, e.g., how to start it.  The fuel gauge registered 3/4 when I first started the engine.  I questioned the attendant who stopped the car and re-started and the gauge showed full?!?  The same thing happened when we returned the car.  We had filled the tank 3 miles prior and the gauge showed 3/4 until I turned off and restarted the engine.”

  • Guest

    To be fair, there are only so many car rental companies.

  • Chris in NC


    Couldn’t agree more. The employees know the rules. The problem is the corporate culture. A system where promotions and bonuses are based solely on the amount of extra “profit” the agent extract from a customer. Managers that look the other way, or worse, encourage unethical behavior, because their own bonuses are based on the agents profit margins.

    This practice seems to be way worse at franchise locations than corporate locations. I am willing to bet that all of the cases here are all franchise locations. It is so bad, that I often will go out of my way to rent at corporate locations only.

    Unfortunately, there is no incentive for this behavior to stop. It stinks, because the only consumer protection available is to be extra vigilant and to avoid patronizing companies that are notorious for these practices. Until consumers stop shopping based on price alone, expect these stories to continue

  • Brooklyn

    I doubt that Arizona rental agreements prohibit driving on dirt roads; too many of the state’s roads are unpaved to make that a reasonable requirement. The “four-inch rule” turns up in so many posts that it would be worth trying to find the source; it must be written somewhere, even if it’s just in a guideline. On the other hand, I don’t think the rental company is required to fix the damage just because it charged for it, any more than I would be prohibited from taking my insurance company’s payment for a dented bumper and using it to fix my kitchen sink.  The problem is that they then charge the next customer for the same dent. Maybe rental cars should carry “passports”, available to the customer, showing the history of damage to the car.

  • Phillips346

    I take my rental cars to a car wash before I return them and vacuum them.  I also take before and after pictures, and video, when I rent.  The last car I rented had a very light scratch on the side and I made them write it down on the agreement even though they said it would not be counted.  They also tried to rent me a dirty car and I wouldn’t take it.  I don’t mind an agent offering me all the “goodies” (their insurance, gas fill-up, etc.) but when I say NO I don’t appreciate the “scare” tactics they apply about cost for the car being out of service, etc., etc.  The last company also said that I needed a gas refill receipt on the date I returned the car that was from a gas station less than 10 miles from the return point.

  • Brooklyn

    Who did you rent from?  The form with a ruler sounds like an excellent idea.

  • Chicky

    You sound like me. I do the same thing. Actually, I posted on another topic here that I also take a picture of the gas receipt with my phone so it’s readily available, if I need it down the road. Having a photo of the car with the gas nozzle in the tank at the station isn’t a bad idea, either. LOL. Plus, I always make sure I get a close up of the license plate in my photos. The other advantage of taking the photos at the gas station is that the car is usually sitting outside in good light, assuming it’s daytime when you return the car. You’re not in a dim parking garage.

  • Carver

    You are correct.  Nothing requires the car owner, whether your or Hertz, to use the money to fix the car.

  • Chris in NC

    Yes there are, and there are companies that are better than others. Problem is, the companies that are better than others don’t always have the lowest rates. 

    As long as some of the questionable companies continue to entice customers based on price alone, there is no incentive for these companies to change their business practices. Hence, cases will continue

  • Chris in NC

    Chicky, one other thing, when I take the picture of the car upon return, I always make sure I get a good shot of the employee in the photo :)

  • Mark K

    But if you mark a scratch and it comes back with a dent, then it is your fault.

  • Steve R

    I agree in concept (and I know legally that’s true), but there are a couple of things that trouble me about rental companies charging a customer for a scratch or ding that they have no intention of repairing.

    One is that absent a repair, how is the rental company to defend that their fee is reasonable? $500 for a scratch seems like a lot of money, though without seeing pictures it’s hard to say for sure it’s unreasonable. What if the rental company had said the damage was worth $800? $1000? $3000? It seems the only check on damage charges absent a repair is the customer digging in his heels and fighting back.

    The other argument I see is that the value of the car has been reduced, which again sounds fine in concept. But by what metric is it fair to judge this? Recently on a business trip I was given a rental SUV with around 20k miles on it and any number of minor cosmetic scratches on the rear bumper. Let’s say I had put another similarly minor scratch on the bumper while I had the car. Unless the rental company fixes the scratch and tells me I owe them for the repairs, I would argue that the value of the damage is next to nothing. One more scratch on a bumper that already has a dozen or more isn’t going to reduce the value of the vehicle.

  • Ali

    In Arizona it would be difficult to avoid all dirt roads. Want to go hiking? Dirt roads to get to the mountain. Tourist traps? Dirt parking lots. Horseback riding? Dirt roads and parking lots. I suspect the OP was not off-roading like one would do in a Jeep. Just a side effect of being in a desert area.

  • Steve R

    There’s probably no distinction in the rental company’s boilerplate, but I would argue there’s a difference between “off-roading” (which I would think of as the kind of things you see in a Jeep commercial – people driving on open land with no roads whatsoever) and driving on a dirt or gravel road.

    For one, the latter can be difficult or impossible to avoid. Apart from rural roads that may be unpaved, what about an unpaved driveway/parking lot? Or what about the case where a normally paved road is down to gravel or dirt for a stretch thanks to road construction?

  • TAPman

    I wonder if you were confusing the gasoline tank level with the battery charge level?

  • TAPman

    I’ll bet the Enterprise rate was much lower than the other big rental companies and that’s why Carri reserved with them.  Now you know why the rate was lower Carri; next time go with Hertz or Avis.

  • amystery726

    They were lucky that Enterprise refunded the repair cost, as it does seem they should have been more “consumer savvy” during this process. 

  • Gratianus

    Chris: The notion that you are traveling in the southwest and won’t find yourself on an unpaved road on route or within a national monument or national park (one of the prime reasons to visit this part of the country) is laughable. How do you get to Chaco Canyon for example? The only solution to this gratuitous discovery of minor dings is to make sure that you pay for your rental with a credit card that covers the deductible on your own policy.

  • $16635417

    I can’t speak for every airline, but I know that for most, the “baggage fee” collection is not tied to a bonus.

  • web/gadget guru

    Reading this blog, I’m finding that Enterprise is becoming the worst of all the car rental companies! I’m going to be sure to avoid them at any cost!

  • Charles B

    By the same token, a reputable car rental place in that location would know about the problem and warn renters in advance. When visiting Jackson WY, I noted that the rental company warned drivers that something like 1 in 3 rentals in the winter came back with windshield damage from thrown rocks on all the dirt roads in the ski areas. An excuse to sell more insurance? Sure. But a valid one. My relatives in the area learn to live with the chips and cracks because otherwise they’d have to replace the windshields at least once a year.

  • Elmo Clarity

    Better add National to that list.  Same company.  And I think Alamo too.  Not positive but I am sure someone else will give that info.

  • Social Loafing

    Seinfeld – Jerry rents a car (The alternate side)

  • Azeem Ahmed @ travel tamed

    This is absurd as to what happened with you. How is that they charge from you even without letting you about it? I think the man who inspected the car in the beginning was already playing a conspiracy of cheating on you. These kind of fraudulent businesses must be stopped.

  • sara8032

    “anything under a thousand from a shop is a bargain”
    Wow – I’ve had a large area dent and scratches over rear wheel straightened out and refinished for less than $400.we paid $360 including tip. A completely new hood (including paint job to match the color) would cost me only $500. Another 2nd owner vehicle has some chipping paint and we noticed that it’s starting to rust under it. While the shop said it depends on how deep the rust is, he still said just $400-$500 to grind the whole thing down to get ALL the rust gone, and re-finish it. $500 for a tiny scratch on a likely plastic bumper?? That’s gotta be the most pricey shop I’ve ever heard of. A whole new bumper (including the padding and whatnot underneith) cost barely $1000 for my car. How much pricier can their car have been??

  • MichelleLV

    I’d like to know which rental companies are better than others.  I have heard terrible things about all of them and because of the hassle I only rent a car about once a year.  The last few rentals have been through Budget.  I’m not impressed with their customer service but they had very convenient locations and prices when I needed a car.   I do take pictures and take the time to let them know I am reviewing the car before and after.  So far I haven’t had a claim of damage.   

  • jim6555

    I’ve found Hertz to be the most reliable …….. and the most expensive. There is a way to sometimes make their rates competitive. I am a AAA member and book Hertz through the website. Recently I booked a compact car for two days in Charlotte, NC. using the AAA site. Total cost (including all taxes and fees was $48). That was better than the rates that the other companies were offering. 

    You need to do a price comparison before using AAA to book Hertz. I need a car for 7 days at LAX in November. Hertz wants almost $300 for a compact. I reserved a compact through Dollar Rent-A-Car for $128. Of course, Before leaving the pickup location, I plan to take pictures of the vehicle and have an employee sign off on the damage report.

  • Asiansm Dan

    Never rent from Enterprise and never will.
    I had rented from Hertz, Avis and Alamo. There were dents all around the car, I told them about its and they said its were “wear and tear” and never had a problem.

  • MikeZ

    Enterprise has clear clipboards with “dent circles” marked so they know what size should be marked and which should be let go. I cannot recall if they also has a scratch ruler on that or not. I’ve never had a problem there myself, even though I have missed a few scratches on rentals. Perhaps its all about the location and ownership.

  • flutiefan

    100% true, at least for my employer. we don’t get bonuses of any kind, for anything.

  • Tom RI

    In my great state of road construction you could always be off roading if the road is made of dirt.  “Off Roading” is just that OFF OF A ROAD  not a federal, city or state maintained road.  A driveway is not a road but a place to place a vehicle. 

    TAKE BEFORE AND AFTER PICTURES  and mark the form that there are dents and scratches on the car (even if there are none, becuase you do not have insurance vision)

  • Lucy Roach

    The pricing models for airlines and rental car companies is different.  The former breaks every extra out to keep the sticker cost of the flight low, while the latter comes up with a host of fees and frivolous add-ons to keep the sticker cost of the rental low.  I actually like the former, since it means if I don’t want to check a bag, my ticket will be cheaper (they’re going to charge that money somehow).  The latter model is, unfortunately, madness.

  • Will

    I would suggest holding on to your pictures for at least 12 months.  I rent very very regularly with hertz for my business travel.  Once, they came after me 8 months later, not knowing how detailed I am at taking pictures when I rent a car, which showed a dent is pre-existing.  The employee, from Oklahoma HQ recovery, was shocked when I sent her a dozen pictures, including the license plate.  She remarked that there is no pulling a fast one on me.  Hertz was doing that to a President’s Club member, so can you imagine what it would do to people that are not regular customers?  Enterprise is even worse.  They  ALWAYS say damage smaller than a certain size doesn’t matter and doesn’t need to be noted, but I always note them.  I have shoved my pictures in Enterprise’s faces a few times.  The entire industry is horrible on these damage claims.  Key here to protect yourself is to note every damage no matter how small and take a lot of pictures.