Can technology help you turn the tables on your car rental company?

If you’re tired of technology being used against you — and how can you not be after the the latest NSA spying allegations — then you’ll probably appreciate this man-bites-dog story.

It comes to us by way of Bryan Lawver, who recently rented a car in Florence, Italy. When he returned the vehicle, an associate told him he was “one minute” past the grace period and would be charged an extra day.

“The agent refused to give us a return receipt, but rather penciled info on our original rental agreement,” says Lawver, who works for the federal government in Livermore, Calif. “I found that peculiar, but I lacked the language skills to explain my complaint.”

Fortunately, Lawver had a more high-tech answer. He used his Sony DSC HX10v, which has built-in GPS and resets its clock to local time, to take a timestamped photo of the car — which, by the way, is always a good idea.

His photo of the agent and car showed that he’d returned the rental within the company’s grace period. Lawver showed the image to a supervisor.

“That rectified the issue instantly,” he says.

Not a victim

Some car rental customers seem to have targets on their back. They contact me when a big, bad rental company or subrogation company is asking them to pay a few hundred bucks for scratching the undercarriage of their rental, and each email to the company is filled with emotional language that would have you believe the rental companies stole their firstborn.

It’s easy to buy into this culture of victimhood. After all, the rental companies invite it with their bullying tactics that include strongly-worded letters demanding immediate payments for often invisible, undocumented damages. Let’s just say neither side is doing itself any favors.

But here’s something Lawver — and other renters — are discovering: They’re not victims, thanks to technology.

Consumers have received encouragement from an unlikely source: a man named Mark Duffy, who used to own National and Alamo franchises for the Island of Puerto Rico. I receive regular complaints about aggressive damage claims from these companies, and although its parent company, Enterprise, denies it, customers believe it operates its vaunted Damage Recovery Unit as a profit center.

Duffy created an app called Rental Pics, which allows rental customers to easily photograph and organize pre- and post-rental images of their car. It even tells you what to photograph.

“I developed the camera system initially for our use,” Duffy told me. But he recently sold his franchise back to Enterprise and spun the concept as a stand-alone app. Interestingly, he says Enterprise “continues to evaluate” the technology at San Juan airport. Hertz was testing a similar program called CRVIS a few years ago in Newark. Unfortunately, it was never adopted.

Leveling the field for us

Technology can be the great equalizer when a car rental company wrongfully accuses you of something. Having reliable “before” and “after” images effectively eliminates any frivolous car rental damage claims. A GPS-enabled camera that can add a timestamp can counter a car rental agent’s claim that you returned a car late.

It helps to understand the predicament car rental companies find themselves in. Profit margins are ridiculously thin, so dropping a $20 charge on a bill can mean the difference between making money and losing it. They’re not gonna just let something go. They’ll charge you for everything they can, because they feel they have to.

The only way to make sure they don’t is to use the tech you have. Remember, without images and timestamps, a car rental company can potentially make any claim it wants to. The burden of proof is on you — to say, “No, that ding was there before I rented the car,” or “I brought the vehicle back on time.”

In an ideal world, car rental companies would be taking photos of their own cars. They’d be GPS-tagged and time-stamped, too. Why don’t they? Because that would cost them money, not just to set up and train their employees, but also in missed damage-claim opportunities.

So it’s up to us.

Car rental customers don’t have to be suckers. When a company demands we pay hundreds of dollars for every ding and dent, to shell out money for junk fees for “loss of use” and “diminution of value,” and when they use time as a weapon to collect more money from us, we can fight back.

We can use technology to level the playing field. And we should.

Do you think technology can level the playing field for car rental customers?

View Results

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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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  • BillCCC

    It will help level the playing field once enough people start to use it. Some consumers already use technology to help themselves but these usually are not the ones you hear from.

  • Nica

    Good story. It is a shame that you actually have to do that and that some employees of the company cannot be honest.

  • Jim Daniel

    I carry my tracking unit, purchased from and serviced by It normally rides in my car at home, but it’s small enough to fit into my shirt pocket and gives me real-time tracking on a third party site. It plugs into the OBD II (diagnostics connector) just under the dash and keeps track of when and where the car stops and starts and the distance driven between points. It will verify when and where I was in case there’s ever a question. It also will yield information to show my average point-to-point.
    I carry this 2’x2″ box in my carry-on and plug it in at the rental location.
    BTW: There’s even a small discount on purchase with the code TAXCA. THen if you leave the rental office 45 minutes after they time-stamped the documents and arrived to return only to find a 1-hour line to make your return, the Mileage Logger shows exactly when you left and returned.

  • California_Dave

    I just rented a car from National last week in Burbank. Thanks to this website I was educated and took precautions. My agreement did not come with the vehicle drawing and a place to note any damage, so I asked the attendant for one. I walked the vehicle with the attendant and noted every single chip near the trunk (common spot where people pull their luggage in and out), door dings, and a huge scratch that went from the windshield to the front of the hood that was almost invisible unless you caught it at the right angle in the right light. I also got him to sign the doc and took pictures. Returned it with no problems and will keep all of my documentation for at least 2 months. I wish there was a way to leave a copy of this information for the next renter, who may be in a hurry or be struggling with kids to pay as close attention. Anyone have any ideas?

  • BillCCC

    Perhaps this is an idea for something like a Car Rental TripAdvisor. Renters can enter their information about the car and rental experience.

  • Alan Gore

    The poll question today is badly worded. Both statements are true; the tech available to ordinary customers can do so much more than a generation ago, but you’re still going to run into darkened parking lots where your picture of the undercarriage (you did remember to get under and do a set there, didn’t you?) won’t reveal enough to be legally admissible.

    We need a standardized automated picture-taking system like ORVIS as described above, that operates at checkout and checking and gives the customer a link to the before and after set of shots. This should be required for every rental.

  • Ginny

    It is also sad when some customers knowingly damage a car and refuse to own up to it claiming to be a victim. It works both ways!

  • jim6555

    “It helps to understand the predicament car rental companies find themselves in. Profit margins are ridiculously thin” ???
    Chris, get real. Rental car companies are charging two or three times as much as they did two years ago. I go to the Los Angeles area to see family during the same week each year. I used to be able to rent an intermediate car at LAX from Hertz for about $210 for a week including taxes and fees. I just checked Hertz and their current rate is now $494. Their prices go up and down like airline fares and if I try to make the reservation on another day, I might be able to save $50 or $75. It would still be at least twice as much as I used to pay.

  • jim6555

    Alan, the undercarriage photos are a good idea. However, I doubt if many rental car customers are willing to get dirty rolling around on a garage or parking lot floor to get these shots. ORVIS makes sense.

  • Alice Morgan

    It helped me out recently! I had to do a rental through my insurance after my own car was out of commission due to a hit & run accident — lucky me. The rental franchise was less than helpful (it took 2 hours to get a car I had a reservation for) and I ended up in a car that was scratched, chipped and given to me dirty. The interior hadn’t even been cleaned out since the last rental, with dirty seats, reeking of smoke, and leaving me to clean ashes out of the dash gauges. I took pictures of everything with a time/date stamp and submitted them to my insurance company’s “claim wall” on the website. That way, there was proof that all of this existed when I picked it up in case they tried to come after me and my insurance for it.


    Last time I rented a car, we picked it up in dark garage at the Seattle airport. I was still able to see some dings and stuff which I noted on the rental contract and made the attendant sign, but there’s no way I could have gotten decent pics. Everything was fine with the return though.

  • Cybrsk8r

    The problem is really the rental companies trying to offer a lower price than they need to make a profit.

    In an ideal world, the rental companies would charge a fair price that allows them to make a reasonable profit without having to resort to so many underhanded tactics.

    It’s the land-based equivalent of what goes on in the skies.

  • Cybrsk8r

    What might actually work would be an app that links to an online database of rental vehicles. Renters would enter details into the database when they see dmage on a rental car. Then, subsequent renters would enter the plate or VIN number into the app and the app scans the database and shows you the damage history of that car, perhaps even with pics. If the database shows damage on your rental car, you can check to see if that damage is still there. I don’t know if smart phones can scan the VIN barcodes, but if so, that would make the process even easier. You scan the barcode and the damage history of your rental car pops up on your phone. Sweet!

    Boy, would the rental companies hate this.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Technology sure worked for me! Several years ago I rented a car in Auckland, NZ. When I picked it up, I noticed there were several large scratches on the trunk. But the attendant was too busy to bother doing a walk-around with me. So I did my own, and took time-stamped photos with my camera.

    Upon returning the car, the attendant pointed to the scratches and told me I was going to have to pay for the repair, and tried to get me to sign a damage report. I just laughed at him, walked inside and showed my time-stamped photos to the manager. The attendant was red-faced spittin’ mad, but again I just laughed. There was nothing they could do…I had the proof. Methinks I cost him a nice fat commission.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Get a cheap monopod, attach a point-and-shoot camera on the end, and you can take all the undercarriage shots you need.

  • Joe Emenaker

    Whenever they try the “We’re going to charge you for an extra day because you’re a minute late” routine, I always tell them “Okay… then I’m going to *keep* it for a whole extra day”. When they realize that they’re not going to be able to rent it out to someone else, later in the day, they relent.

  • Deem

    In some instances, we have the cities we travel to to thank for the higher cost of rentals. Taxes are added time and again to pay for new stadiums, etc… Try renting at off airport locations to avoid paying those nice little “fees” added by most major cities. Car rental companies (just like hotels), will charge more when availability is scarce. Better yet, use a good travel consultant to help you find the best deal.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Not a bad move if you’re renting locally. At an airport location, though, they might have you over a barrel if they know you’re flying out.

  • Thoroughlyamused

    TAKE PICTURES OF YOUR RENTAL CARS. As a former rental agent, I can’t stress this enough. My company never, to my knowledge, rented someone a damaged car deliberately in an attempt to scam them. However, if the $8 an hour return agent misses damage when a car is returned and that car is re-rented, the damage wouldn’t be documented in the system. CYA at all times.

  • Beyond Downton Abbey

    Most good photographers don’t have have digital time stamp turned on in their cameras; who wants a date and time superimposed on your wonderful pictures? But even without the stamp, every digital photo file includes the date and time as part of the file’s information. So even if you forget the time stamp, the info is still there, although as part of the photo file information, and can be used as evidence in rental car disputes. (Of course, the camera’s internal clock *does* need to be set to the correct local time)

  • PolishKnightUSA

    I saw ridiculous car rental fees last time my wife and I went to Fort Lauderdale. So we opted to go carless since our resort was on the beach and she wasn’t interested in a lot of driving. We took the bus, $3 per day, and it took about 45 minutes to go from the airport to the resort. By taxi, maybe it would take 25 minutes. After we checked in, we used the day pass to do our grocery shopping. We also got a lot of exercise! An added bonus: No worry about rental car return. We took the bus in the morning and got off at the airport and went straight through to check in.

    When I travel for business, I rarely need a car as well. Either the hotel has a shuttle, I use the bus, or… I know a hotel that’s close to my hotel that has a shuttle… (I ALWAYS tip the driver though!)

  • PolishKnightUSA

    See my comment above. Rental cars often go for big money daily to the point where my wife and I opted to go carless on our last vacation (and it turned out, we liked it so much we’ll be doing it again!)

    I have the optional full premium coverage from Amex for $20 per rental. I should be protected. But because I’m responsible, I still take photos and not any scratches on the agreement.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    His manager probably patted him on the back and said “good luck next time!” You should have demanded an immediate write up of the incident from the manager that the employee would be reprimanded. Then you should have written the company’s corporate headquarters and demanded a followup. If they didn’t follow up in 30 days, you should have written their regulatory board or consumer protection agency in the state with your documentation and CC’s the corporate headquarters (and while you are at it, their CEO).

    That would get them to think twice about this kind of shenanigans next time and maybe gotten you a gesture of goodwill.

  • Chasmosaur

    This. I love how everyone exhorts you to take pictures of your rental car. In the past 5 years, I can’t think of an airport pick-up that hasn’t been deep in the parking lot with no ambient light. Unless you get a white or light colored car, it’s really hard to see chips, dings and scratches, and pictures are worthless.

  • LeeAnneClark

    I might have considered that, if it hadn’t happened in New Zealand…a foreign country to me. And the car rental agency was Europcar. Not being familiar with the regulatory agencies and/or consumer protection agencies in either New Zealand or Europe, I just thanked my lucky stars that I managed to avoid the scam.

  • caracal1788

    You had a lucky escape. Europcar is infamous in Australia and NZ for these sorts of activities. There are many, many hire car companies, but this would be the last one I would go with:

  • Italy wheels

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