Rental Cars: Eight Common Scams

Last Updated Aug 25, 2010 1:48 PM EDT

We've all had our indignities renting cars -- lengthy waits for shuttle vans, unwelcome upgrade offers, rude counter personnel, being told they're sold out despite a reservation in hand (the latter happened to me in San Francisco just last week) -- but that's kid stuff.

I've since learned that these are mild forms of punishment compared to some car rental scams. There are dozens of worse things that happen routinely, making me feel almost lucky I ended up taking $200 worth of cabs instead (decrepit though they may be). Here are a few things to guard against:

Super-low upfront fares. If one company is priced $40 or more less per day, it's probably because the entry-level car you've reserved will be unavailable when you show up -- you'll experience an expensive and inadvertent upgrade (sometimes three times the original estimate), and there will be "nothing we can do." Taxes and other assessed fees jack up car rental rates an average of 25 percent, reports Travelocity. The one-price-on-the-phone ruse works especially well when the customer has just taken a shuttle van to a remote office away from the airport and wants to get on the road at all costs.

Insurance add-ons. Many aggrieved customers say they were pressured into buying expensive policies, despite being covered by their existing insurance. According to Consumeraffairs.com, "Selling consumers additional insurance coverage, often unnecessarily duplicating coverage they already have, is the primary way car rental companies increase the cost of the rental." These polices can come disguised as any of the following: collision damage waiver; supplemental liability protection; personal accident insurance; or personal effects coverage. You're likely to pay as much as $30 a day extra if you accept these fees. Some companies will ask for huge deposits if you decline the insurance, or not rent to you at all -- which is illegal in most states.

Claimed damage. Companies will rent poorly maintained vehicles, then claim you caused the stone chip in the windshield or the dent in the rear bumper. Proving otherwise after you've already accepted the car (and signed a form stating it was fine) is difficult. "They claimed [the spoiler damage] happened on my watch," complained an unhappy customer. "When I denied being responsible they turned it over to collections and pursued it through a third party."

Inflated toll charges. In some states, toll booths have disappeared and charges mount on the car itself through E-Zpass. Rental companies use this fact to impose surcharges on customers over and above the actual toll amounts ($25 for "processing" in one case, $9 in another).

Huge gas fees. Woe to the inexperienced renter who returns a car half full! If scam artists are behind the desk, the surcharge will be far more than cost of the gasoline. And then there's the "fuel package," which means buying your top-off gas from the rental company (and paying through the nose for it).

Local travel only. Despite prominent "unlimited mileage" claims, some companies have hidden clauses stating that such policies apply only to "in-state travel." Yes, that means a hefty charge for violating the company's rules.

Bizarre, dangerous return policies. A friend rented a car, and tells this tale of woe: "I was carted to some suspect hole in the wall where they stuck me with a smelly Camry (cigarette burns and scratches) for $450 bucks for 3 days. I had to park it in a daily spot at the airport to return it and leave the keys and ticket in it! Can't wait to see my AmEx bill when they try to stick me with a stolen vehicle fee--."

Late fees. Let's say you booked the car for a specific length of time, but your flight is delayed. Now the rental period is longer. According to this site, now you're facing new rates. And if plans change and you want to drop the car off at a different airport, these same scamsters will make sure you pay extra for that, too.

To be fair, I've found most car rental agencies I've dealt with to be honest. Paula Rivera, a spokeswoman for Hertz, told me that her company provides complimentary upgrades if the reserved car class is not available, and if sold out will work out "an alternative means of transportation," which could include renting a car from an alternative company" -- with Hertz picking up any difference in cost. That's classy.

Hertz's policies argue against prepaid reservations, however. If a prepaid reservation is canceled more than 24 hours before the scheduled pickup time, then a $25 cancellation fee is charged. If it's within the 24 hours, that's raised to $50. If you just don't show up (and 20 to 30 percent of reservation holders don't show up) then your whole prepaid fee is gone.

When it comes to renting cars, the buyer has to not only beware, but also read the fine print.

Related: Photo: Flickr/SlinkyDragon
  • jim motavalli

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