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

By | August 26th, 2013

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.

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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.

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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?

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