The Car Rental Industry's Double Standards

If you were the last person to rent the vehicle, you're on the hook for whatever damage they want to charge you or your insurance company. You just have to take them at their word.
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Ric Vesely knows about the car rental industry's double standards. When he returned his Dollar Rent a Car vehicle in Minneapolis recently, an employee asked him a strange question: Did he have a receipt for his gasoline purchase?

Vesely, an engineer who was visiting from Colorado, hadn't bought Dollar's pricey fuel-purchase option, agreeing instead to return the vehicle with a full tank. He said he didn't have a receipt, but that it didn't matter -- the needle on the gas gauge pointed to "full."

"The employee became angry with me and told me that it was buried in the fine print on the contract I had signed," he remembers. "He then proceeded to interrogate me on where I had purchased the gasoline."

Then Vesely did something he regretted. He told the employee he'd just filled up the tank.

"I had actually purchased gas about 15 miles away," he says. "Now I feel like a thief."

Maybe he shouldn't. Because if the tables were turned, the car rental company would apply a completely different set of standards to itself.

What do I mean? Well, if a ding or dent is discovered on Vesely's vehicle after he returned it, a car rental company would send him a bill and insist that he settle up immediately. Failure to do so could get him reported to a collection agency, damage his credit score and land him on a car rental blacklist. Sometimes, the agency doesn't even bother sharing a picture of the alleged damage. It just sends the bill.

If a customer has the audacity to ask for evidence of the damage, the response is often: We don't have to prove anything. The agency, or an outside company hired to process the damage claim, will just re-send the bill wrapped in an even more threatening letter.

Pay up -- or else.

I'm working a case right now where there are no photos of the damage, no real proof the customer harmed the car in any way. Mike Scher, a reader from Miami, returned his Dollar rental recently and an associate gave him a "clean" return form that indicated the car was in good condition. "We were shocked to receive a very aggressive claim for over $700 in damages," he says.

Scher sent a letter back, saying he'd returned the vehicle unharmed.

"They send more and more aggressive notices and threatened us with legal action," he says. "It's so unfair."

I've had conversations with auto rental executives who say they don't need to show you anything. If you were the last person to rent the vehicle, you're on the hook for whatever damage they want to charge you or your insurance company. You just have to take them at their word.

Yet when it comes to a tank of gas, car rental agencies typically won't take us at our word. They can demand proof that we filled up the tank. They don't even trust their own cars to tell them the tank is full.

It's absurd. At the very least, car rental companies ought to conduct a thorough inspection when you return a car, documenting any damage. A driver should also acknowledge any problems in writing before leaving the parking lot. Any "damage" discovered after the return should be covered by the car rental company. After all, who's to say the car wasn't dented while on the lot?

The lesson is obvious. Take pictures of your car, pre- and post-rental. Keep them for at least six months. You may need the proof that you didn't do it.

Vesely's story has a happy ending. Overcome with guilt, he contacted Dollar and told the truth. "I came clean," he says, sending the company an email with the actual location of the gas station.

To its credit, the company let him off the hook.

"With regards to a refueling fee," Dollar wrote back, "at this time, we do not show that there is any intention by the location to charge for fuel."

By the way, after you've left a comment here, let's continue the discussion on my consumer advocacy site or on Twitter, Facebook and Google. I also have a free newsletter. Here's the signup form.

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