Car Rental Horror Stories

By Gary Stoller, USA TODAY
Bob Silvy has a caution for travelers picking up and returning rental cars: Check the vehicle closely or you could be held liable for damage caused by others. Silvy, of Parkville, Mo., just ended a nearly six-month dispute with Thrifty Car Rental, which sent a letter requesting $700 for damage to a van he returned to the Atlanta airport in January — damage he says he had nothing to do with.

He says the van was returned undamaged but that Thrifty wouldn’t listen to his side of the story. His auto insurance company, Geico, stood behind him and refused to compensate Thrifty. When USA TODAY contacted Thrifty for comment last month, the rental company changed its position. It said that Silvy did not damage the vehicle and that it would refund $448.46 paid for the rental.

“What galls me is that Thrifty said it didn’t have to prove I caused the damage,” says Silvy, a vice president for publishing company American City Business Journals. “It made me think, ‘How many other people have been unfairly charged?’ ”

Many frequent car renters complain that, like Silvy, they’ve been charged for damage that didn’t happen during their rentals. But the burden of proof is on them to show otherwise, and some say the disputes can take months to resolve.

Car rental companies say such situations are rare, however. They say they can make mistakes. In the end, they say, more renters acknowledge damage than dispute it. “Ideally, car rental companies properly note and track all vehicle damage,” says Laura Bryant, a spokeswoman for Enterprise Rent-A-Car. “However, with millions of car rentals booked every week, it’s possible for our industry to sometimes miss things, particularly during a rush at the airport.”

Thrifty spokesman Chris Payne says proving who caused damage “can be tricky, and to the person renting the car, it may seem in many ways circumstantial.” But Thrifty’s rental agreement clearly states that renters are responsible for a vehicle while it is in their possession, he says.

“If the vehicle comes back with dings that weren’t documented prior to their taking it, they are responsible,” Payne says. “If they can convince us that the damage was pre-existing — and they often do — then we oftentimes drop it.”

That’s what happened to frequent business traveler John Oglesby of Centennial, Colo. Oglesby says he returned an Avis car with a scrape on it in Kansas City two years ago and was told he was responsible for the damage. Oglesby says he didn’t cause it, and Avis dropped the matter when he pointed to rust in the area that was scraped. “I think it is critical to avoid paying for old damage that is often not repaired between renters,” says Oglesby, vice president of a parking-lot company.

Howard Schmidt of Issaquah, Wash., says it took a week or two to eliminate a 411-euro damage charge (about $575) he was assessed five days after returning a Hertz car at the airport in Frankfurt in March. He says he inspected the car at the drop-off area, “and other than some dirt from the rain, there was absolutely no damage on the car.”

Proving it wasn’t you

Schmidt, CEO of a business information security company, requested that Hertz send photos of the damage. The photos showed a front-bumper scrape and were stamped with a time that was 13 hours after Schmidt returned the rental car.

Schmidt told Hertz that someone else must have caused the damage. “After a series of e-mails and phone calls, they finally reversed the charge,” he says.

Many car renters, though, are either in a vehicle when it is damaged or are aware of damage before a vehicle is returned. Oglesby, for example, says he was charged $3,500 by Hertz when his parked rental car was sideswiped in a Honolulu garage in 1999. He didn’t buy Hertz’s loss-damage waiver, so he had to pay $1,000 — the deductible portion of his personal auto insurance policy — and insurance paid the rest.

Damage to rental cars is infrequent, according to Hertz, the only car rental company that provided USA TODAY with statistics.

Last year, the company’s rental fleet was involved in 1.64 accidents per 1,000 rental days, spokeswoman Paula Rivera says. Each day a customer rents a vehicle is considered one rental day.

Enterprise, which also owns National and Alamo, doesn’t gather such statistics. There is much variance from location to location because of differences in geography and weather, spokeswoman Bryant says.

She says more vehicles are damaged in big cities, while Avis spokesman John Barrows says, “Winter rentals have a higher damage propensity.”

Silvy, the Thrifty renter wrongly accused last winter of being responsible for damage to a vehicle he returned to a big-city airport, says he wonders how many renters have been in the same situation.

“What concerns me is how often there is no inspection of the vehicle upon pickup or when it is dropped off,” he says. “This could happen to almost anyone.”

Have you had a bad experience with a rental car? Share your horror stories below.

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