Susan Tompor Detroit Free Press Personal Finance Columnist
Published 11:07 p.m. UTC Jun 6, 2018
How’s this one for a summer vacation horror story? Rent a car, return it and then, three or four months later, get a bill for $500 or more for damages.
Maybe you’re being charged for dings that you’re convinced weren’t there when you turned in the rental car.
It’s one potential rip-off to avoid during summer vacation season. Angry consumers who have found themselves staring at a bill have turned to the Better Business Bureau and others to complain about their billing and collections incidents involving rental cars and damages.
One consumer complained late last year to the BBB saying: ”I rented a car from Budget and returned it on July 5th of (2017), 5 months after returning the car I get a bill from Viking Billing Service stating that I damaged the car and claimed $798.01. I know there was no damage while I had the car.”
Another consumer was upset about a claim for $1,396.68 for damage that the consumer did not believe took place during the rental.
A local consumer told me about renting a car at Thanksgiving from Thrifty and then receiving a bill from Viking Client Services, a collections agency and billings service, in March for about $465 — including roughly $100 for “loss of use” on the car and a $50 administrative fee. Again, the driver complained that the damage wasn’t there when that customer returned the car. The report noted the “customer walked away” when the car was dropped off, as allowed, before the office opened because the couple was catching an early flight.
Consumers are often upset with the car rental companies, as well as the billings service, which may send the first notice the customer sees about the charge for damages.
About 90 complaints were answered or resolved in the past three years involving Viking, including 59 involving billing or collection issues, according to the BBB.
The good news: Some consumers who felt they were wronged ended up fighting the bill. They were able reach an agreement and did not have to pay the charges for damages.
“It does happen that a car rental company will bill you for damage that doesn’t exist,” said Jonathan Weinberg, CEO and founder of Autoslash.com, a free website that searches hundreds of coupons and discounts for rental companies to get you a deal.
In some cases, he said, there could be a rogue actor, perhaps at a franchise outlet, who might falsely charge customers and hope they’ll just pay the bill without complaining.
Most often, though, the damage happened, Weinberg said. An employee of the rental company might have dinged the car or another customer might have had an unreported accident. Or maybe the customer is unaware that he or she had a minor fender bender, too.
The Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota said it is concerned, though, that some consumers are complaining about receiving “out of the blue” bills months after the fact from Viking, based in Eden Prairie, Minn.
The BBB has an A+ rating on Viking. But after I called raising some consumer complaints, the BBB said it intends to take a deeper look into some questions, particularly in cases where there’s a pattern of incorrect or suspect billing for alleged damages that can’t be substantiated.
“We plan to invite the company in for a meeting with us to discuss this issue,” said Dan Hendrickson, communications manager for the BBB in Minnesota.
“We’d like to learn more about how many rental agencies they serve, and whether any vetting is done or if the accounts turned over to them are pursued ‘as is,’ ” Hendrickson said.
Overall, the volume of complaints is “within tolerance” levels for a collection agency and has gone down significantly in 2018, Hendrickson said. This year, the company has had three complaints. That compares with 32 complaints in 2017 and 55 complaints in 2016. Viking also has been taking action in many cases to resolve issues.
Viking declined to comment on the record about consumer complaints.
Consumers are advised to contact the rental location or customer service number listed on the invoice if they want to dispute a damage assessment. Hertz said it has a third-party app at select locations to use during pre- and post-rental vehicle services inspections.
Through the app, employees and customers can take pictures of the vehicle, documenting any damage and completing an accident form, if necessary.
If you’re renting a car soon, here are some tips to keep in mind:
Avoid returning your rental car after hours
A risk exists if you return a rental car after hours. In some cases, such as the one in Michigan, customer complaints involved cars that were returned to a lot in the off hours.
“Anytime you drop off a car after hours you are responsible for anything that happens to that car until the office opens and they inspect it,” Weinberg said.
Hertz — which also owns Dollar Rent-A-Car and Thrifty Car Rental — said a customer is responsible for any damage to the vehicle if returned after business hours, until Hertz has inspected and accepted the car on the next business day. Each incident is reviewed on a case-by-case basis but rules are spelled out in rental agreements.
If you need to return a car after hours, take pictures of the vehicle as proof of its condition.
If renters receive a bill for damage, they can request documentation of the damage (such as pictures and repair estimates), according to the Florida Attorney General’s Office, which has investigated some car rental complaints.
Know your own insurance coverage before renting
If you own a car, talk with your insurance agent to see if you’re covered for damages on a rental car before you sign up for a “collision damage waiver” with the car rental company. In some cases, the waiver could add another $30 a day to your bill —sometimes as much as the rental cost.
“It’s a bad deal for drivers but a great money maker for the rental company,” said Andrew Stoltmann, a Chicago attorney who specializes in fraud cases.
To be sure, deductibles and restrictions under your own insurance could be involved. Understand what your out-of-pocket cost can be upfront.
Check out what kind of protections you might have on a rental car with your credit card, too. If you want any damage coverage through your credit card, of course, you want to make sure you book the car with that card.
With many credit cards, you’d still need to file a claim with your insurance company before the card’s coverage benefits kick in. But some premium travel cards offer primary auto rental coverage.
Standing at the rental counter on the receiving end of the “hard sell” on insurance is not the time to think about whether you have the coverage you need, Weinberg said.
Give a second look to buying a damage waiver
Sure, this isn’t necessarily the cheapest way to go. But a few folks say opting to buy a loss damage waiver offered by the rental company could make things easier if someone hits the car.
Bill Wilson, founder of industry blog InsuranceCommentary.com, takes the less-popular view that consumers should pay for the damage waiver because in some cases you could be socked with charges that your insurance or credit card typically don’t cover.
Rental car companies can collect for “loss of use” from the renter or authorized driver in the majority of states. The charge is intended to offset the damaged rental vehicle’s time off the road for repairs. If the repairs are relatively minor, there may not be a “loss of use” charge, according to Hertz.
Hertz noted that renters can avoid loss of use and administrative fees by buying the rental company’s loss damage waiver, which is an optional service.
Many times, insurance blogger Wilson said, your own car insurance isn’t going to cover “loss of use” charges. So you could be stuck.
At the same time, though, consumer watchdogs note that your car insurance company is likely to fight “loss of use” charges, which some argue is a junk fee.
If you do not want to take any risk, some say, paying the high cost for a damage waiver might be the way to go.
Ask questions before you hit the car rental counter
Take time to understand what you’re really getting for a super cheap rate. Will a second person be allowed to drive that car for that rate? Will that super low rate cover a car with air conditioning or other features? Do you need four-wheel drive if you’re renting during winter when there might be icy conditions?
What fees might you be charged for returning the car early or late? Is there an extra charge to leave the car at the airport rental lot? An extra charge for a car seat for a child?
Keep good records and take photos
Before you drive off the lot, take a few photos of the car and inspect the vehicle for any damages. If you see significant damage, request another vehicle, according to AARP Driver Safety.
Keep your gas station receipt when you fill up before returning the rental car. Note the mileage driven from the gas station to the rental location where you return the car, just in case the agency attempts to add a charge for gas.
And yes, you do want to return the rental with a full tank of gas — car rental companies can really ding you on what they’d charge you for a tank of gas.
Contact Susan Tompor: [email protected] or 313-222-8876. Follow Susan on Twitter @Tompor.
- Car rental firms Dollar and Thrifty join NFM Group
- Big Savings or Big Brother? Your Usage-Based Car Insurance Is Watching
- The paultan.org 2017 Top Five cars list
- Dangerous new car hire con hitting British holidaymakers this summer
- Car hire firm awarded lowest ever satisfaction score in survey
- Rent An Electric Car In Dubai For Under $1.50 An Hour
- Locally-developed autonomous car by Reka Studios
- Amazon will now deliver to your car — but you might pay for it in privacy
- Access by BMW car subscription service launched in the US
- Tesla CEO Elon Musk on Model 3 production problems: "You'll definitely get your car"
- Decade after recall, tens of thousands of cars with most deadly air bags still on road
- Preparing Your Classic Car for Upholstery
Car rental customers: Watch your mail for this unexpected bill have 1745 words, post on eu.freep.com at June 6, 2018. This is cached page on VietNam Breaking News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.