Maybe I shouldn’t have taken this case after all

By | September 13th, 2012

When Stacy Mills rented a car from Alamo recently, she says the vehicle had “several minor scratches” on the front right door of the vehicle. Although she tried to report the damage, an employee waved her off, telling her not to worry.

You probably think you know how this story ends. Mills got a bill anyway, I contacted Alamo, and it dropped the charges.

But that’s not how this one ends. This case makes me take a step back and evaluate my entire consumer advocacy practice. You’ll see why in a minute.

First, let’s let Mills finish her story. An Alamo rep told her the company didn’t really care about dents or dings, but would document “major” body damage.

When I returned the vehicle, the gentleman who checked the vehicle in stated that I needed to submit a damage report due to the pre-existing scratches and that alamo would contact me within seven days.

I disputed the damages on the spot and advised them that this was pre-existing.

In the meantime, I did contact Alamo’s member services department to let them know what happened and that I never received any documentation from the exit gate attendant.

Alamo sent her a $622 repair bill, but she say it did not detail any of the repairs or charges.

Now, if you’re sitting at my desk, and you see all of this — the apparent refusal to document pre-existing damage, the “gotcha” and the return and the bill lacking any documentation — you can almost hear the klaxons.

I contacted Alamo. A few days later, Mills reported back:

I received the phone call from Alamo yesterday. Alamo will be releasing the claim and that I would not be responsible for the damage.

I requested that a letter be sent to me stating that the damage wasn’t my fault and was told they were “99 percent sure” that the damage recovery unit would be sending one out since they have been contacted about the resolution of this issue. I can’t thank you enough for your assistance because clearly they were trying to take advantage of me.

But were they? A few days later, I heard from Alamo.

“As requested, we have reviewed the documentation again,” a representative told me. “However, the damage is significant — see estimate and pictures attached — and was not indicated on prior rental agreements.”

I’ve published one of the photos, above.

Alamo declined to drop the charges, according to the representative.

This set off another round of inquiries. Mills believed she’d have to pay the
$622, after all. Alamo didn’t seem to know what was happening with her case. I was confused.

It turns out that Alamo had sent the letter promising to drop the claim. Apparently, my initial inquiry had persuaded them to simply abandon a valid claim.

If that’s true, then I forced a car rental company to repair a vehicle one of its customers damaged, at its own expense.

I feel like an accessory to a crime.

I’ve reviewed the damage claim several times, and I’m not persuaded that Mills dented the vehicle. From some of the angles, it’s difficult to see the dents.

But her case reminds me of a line you hear when people debate capital punishment. How many innocent people have been executed? (If it’s just one, isn’t that one too many?) Similarly, how many guilty consumers have I helped get a refund? (If it’s just one, isn’t it one too many?)

Mills’ case has weighed heavily on my conscience for the last few weeks. When you have the ability to contact any company and pressure it to offer a refund, drop a damage claim case, or even to just apologize, you have to use that influence for good, and not evil.

I have seen colleagues wield the power of the press in a way that’s completely wrong. I know there are folks on the other side of the counter who think I’ve done it, too.

  • technomage1

    I declined to answer the poll because I have no idea if Mills damaged the car or not. If she did, she should have had to pay for it. That is the problem when rental agencies/renters don’t document a walk through prior to the renter driving away. It leaves both parties open to abuse. That is the real issue here.

    As far as influence, I completely agree. You have to be careful how you wield that power. There have been several cases of late that you’ve taken on where the customer’s story troubled me – to honest, they sounded very fishy. You owe it to both honest consumers and companies to use the same rigorous standard you apply to companies to consumers. Did the consumer fulfill their end of the deal? Would a “reasonable person” have done the same things they did or come to the same conclusion?

    I know you want to help people and you do. But, unfortunately, there are dishonest people out there who would take advantage of that.

  • johnb78

    I don’t think you’ve done anything even slightly questionable here.

    The onus should always be on the rental company to send the customer an itemised, written bill that fully documents the damage and justifies the repair cost they are charging. *Straight away*, not only after the customer complains.

    If they fail to provide evidence, it doesn’t matter whether the customer drove the car off a cliff or into a compactor, they have no business asking for money.

    And if their internal processes are so flawed that this means they can’t provide the justification in cases where they have suffered real damage, then they shouldn’t be in business in the first place.

    (in general, consumers should always be given the benefit of the doubt in business-to-consumer disputes, reflecting the relative power and knowledge that the two groups have. Nearly all consumer protection laws in English-speaking jurisdictions work this way, so I don’t think you’re being unreasonable in following that practice)

  • I have absolutely no idea whether Mills should have paid the damage or not. How can I determine whether she damaged the car or whether the damage was pre-existing. She obviously should have gotten the gate attendent to document the damage, but it’s not unusual for them to claim that its not necessary and a reasonable infrequent traveler might believe them.
    As far as your actions, I agree with Johnb78. Presumably you are neither a mind reader nor possess a crystal ball. You can only make your decisions upon the evidence that you are presented. Given that Alamo failed to provide a clear and detailed bill, you can reasonably assume that the bill was bogus and you advocated accordingly.
    When I disagree with your analysis, I have no problem saying so. In this case, you are in the clear.

  • “Although she tried to report the damage, an employee waived her off, telling her not to worry.”

    Has Stacy Mills never heard of a camera? CYA at all times.

  • Walt Blackadar

    I believe that if the charges were legitimate, then Alamo would have stuck to their guns a little longer. That they immediately dropped the claim as soon as you inquired about it suggests to me that either it wasn’t valid, or their documentation process is lacking. I don’t know if Mills is telling the truth or not. None of us do. But we don’t know if Alamo is telling the truth either and they caved immediately. So what does that suggest?

  • Amy Alkon

    As somebody points out below, we all have camera phones these days. Very important to document both with photos and get it in writing on your agreement for the car that the damages are pre-existing.

    I don’t think you made a mistake, Christopher, by intervening. You did it in good faith.

  • Bruce Schobel

    That slight damage is too minor to repair in any case. A $622 bill is ridiculous. Companies that rent cars realize that they will get little dings from time to time. What I see in the picture is hardly “major body damage.”

  • SoBeSparky

    How can we now vote? It is no more clear than in the beginning. Lots of fog and no clarity.

    Regarding Chris’s efforts, I am sure he is not threatening or overly aggressive in his communications with vendors. I see no problem in making inquiries for a review of a case.

    Fact is, Chris wrote the book, “Scammed.” Consumers also can create scams and make a living at it too.

  • Rose Arnold

    If you are unsure, how could we possibly vote on this one?

  • disqus_A6K3VBf8Zn

    I would have the damage noted on the rental bill before signing for the car. If the agency did not allow this, I would rent a different car and/or go elsewhere. I will not take a car with damage unless this has been noted on the agreement for my driving it starts.

  • Nica

    I would have been more insistent on getting the damage waiver in writing or I would have documented the damage myself with a camera phone, regular camera, camcorder, iPad, iPhone, etc. Without that, Mr. Elliott cannot be completely sure if the damage was there previously or if Ms. Mills caused it.

    Mr. Elliott tries to help people out, but sometimes there are people out there that can be a little grimy.

  • LeRoy Trusty

    Typical Alamo – they pulled this on me but I had pictures of the damage with a date/time stamp and an email (dated) that I sent to the one posted on the form.

  • ClareClare

    “The damage is significant–see… pictures attached.”
    I’m staring at the computer screen, with my glasses on, and I don’t see anything except a blue pencil-line and what looks like a reflection on the metal.
    So what exactly is the problem with the OP’s original allegation, that there were pre-existing “minor scratches” that Alamo is now billing her $622 to “repair”? How does this photo indicate that the OP was feeding Chris a line, and that Alamo was right?
    The last time somebody hit my car (in a parking-lot) and did damage that the body-shop estimated would cost many hundreds of dollars to fix, you didn’t need a blue pencil to point it out. YOU COULDN’T MISS IT!
    So Chris, you have completely lost me here. I am SO confused…

  • Andrew F

    @Amy: The problem with “self-documenting” through camera phones is that the photos are easily doctored. You don’t even need to edit them: just change the date before taking the picture! Therefore, if you see damage, either refuse to take the car or have the company rep sign the damage report.

    As far as this case goes, it should be easy enough to at least locate and question the person who “waved off” Mills when she reported preexisting damage. Alamo dropped the claim without making THAT small an effort, so I’m inclined to side with the customer.

  • Frank Windows

    The fact that this case has bounced around only seems to establish that Alamo’s employees aren’t following procedures and Alamo can’t say for sure who damaged the car. Did Ms. Mills pull a fast one? Did an existing dent go unnoticed? We just don’t know, and Alamo doesn’t seem to either.

    If rental car companies are sending out expensive bills, then they should have procedures in place to document *without doubt* when the damage occurred. The burden of proof lies with Alamo, and they haven’t provided it; even if Ms. Mills did damage the car, the claim should be dropped on principal. Rental car companies are spending money to collect on damage claims; why aren’t they spending money to document them?

  • Frank Windows

    Collision work gets very expensive. A wrinkle like that, with two panels affected (the door and the fender, the latter part of the unit-body which is an integral part of the car’s structure) is labor-intensive… $600 sounds about right.

  • EvilEmpryss

    Last month I and my teen daughter took a road trip in a rental. When they brought the car up I did a walk around and found significant scratches around the trunk area, some all the way through the paint. I used it as a teaching moment and showed her how to go about documenting the scratches and other little dings inside and out with a camera and then make sure it was noted on the rental agreement before we took possession of the car. The rental agent looked mildly annoyed that I wanted a detailed description noted on the form and I also made her note that I took pictures. When I turned it in the guy wasn’t even going to do a walk around of the car. He took one look at the damage report and tried to sign off on it. I had to make him walk around the car and note that there was no extra damage… and I took more pictures. CYA because I can’t afford a $600+ repair bill, even if my insurance would cover it.

    What I want to know is, do the rental agencies actually use the money they collect to repair the cars? They send a bill for the repairs, but can they prove the repairs were done? Shouldn’t they have to prove that they did the work if they’re going to bill customers for it? Isn’t it fraud if they don’t? I can’t believe that someone didn’t note those scratches before and try to collect from a renter to get the paint job fixed. When I see that amount of unrepaired damage it’s a red flag to me that the company is going to try to hit as many renters as possible for the same damage.

    Oh, and the company I rented from was Alamo. I’m not saying it’s a conspiracy, but….

  • emanon256

    I bought a bigger car last year, turns out the opening to my garage is only 2 inches wider than the car. I dented the fender when trying to pull into the garage. The dent is in the flair above the wheel well. I have gotten 3 quotes, all ranging from $900-$1,200. The labor is really price because they have to remove the entire front bumper to be able to remove the fender. Also, the paint is not cheep. I decided to let it go and live with the dent, but thats my choice as the vehicle owner. But the purpose of my story is to show that even a small dent can be petty expensive.

  • emanon256

    Did Chris change the picture? The damage I see is pretty severe in my opinion. No blue line necessary to notice it.


    If she didn’t insist on documenting the damage BEFORE she took the car, then I say it’s on her and she owes the company for the damage.

  • Carol Jason

    I have rented many cars and the rep always says if it is less thann 4 inches they do not care, I take pictures with my phone walk back in and document the areas on the form and have the rep sign that he saw the pictures! They usually are annoyed with me!?!?

  • Carchar

    Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? Alamo should have to prove she did it.

  • tommyj

    Given Alamo’s history of asking for money without stating what was damaged and the request to simply pay us…I would say that their reputation alone is catching up to them and you are in the clear. While the individual may have been lying…history says it’s Alamo….and let’s not forget Enterprise….

  • MarkKelling

    Unfortunately, there is nothing requiring the funds be used to actually repair the vehicle. It is the same if your personal vehicle is damaged and you receive money for the damage. You can either repair the vehicle or buy groceries for the month.

    While most car rental companies publicly deny they collect the money without any intention of repairing the vehicles, I know it happens. I rented from the same location of one of the larger car rental companies twice in a month and got the same car. Both times they attempted to get me to pay for the same preexisting damage. Luckily I had filled out the damage report so I didn’t have to pay. I wonder how many of the people who rented the vehicle in between my rentals got hit for the same repair costs as well and ended up paying?

    I believe they only repair damage that impacts the safety or drivability of the vehicle and nothing more until they get ready to sell the vehicle. So all the minor dents and scratches that renters get charged for repeatedly only apply to the profit margin of the companies.

  • MarkKelling

    Unfortunately with a photo like the one provided is that it could be any car from the rental fleet that looks like the one the OP rented. Without showing the license plate or other indisputable proof it is the rented vehicle It proves nothing.

  • pauletteb

    Time to update that prescription!

  • john4868

    @MarkKelling:disqus How do you take a pic that shows detail on the passenger door and get the lic plate or vin # in the picture?

  • Binky90210

    Per Google Translate:
    “I’m 99% sure” = “I’m lying to your face to get you out of my face.”

  • Trudi

    Why didn’t she note the damage on the car when she rented it in the first place? Something is hinky about that. Maybe it’s experience, but when I rent a car I not only look it over, I photograph it with the agent present. I’ve even asked the agent to stand next to a door scratch. I agree with your assessment, Chris, your integrity could be damaged if people take advantage of your skills for their own profit/protection. I’m not sure you have enough information to prove this is what happened, but if it walks like a duck….

  • john4868

    Your honor exhibit #1 is the signout sheet the OP signed with no damage indicated in the area of the right front door and quarter panel. Exhibit #2 is the signed statement from the iemployee that checked in the vehicle indicating that damage was present in the area of the right front door and quarter panel when she returned it.
    I rest my case.

  • KarlaKatz

    The pics show damage beyond what any check-out agent has ever advised me to “ignore”. The OP should have insisted that the scarring be documented on the check-out diagram; I know, I’ve been one of those “B’s” who stood my ground, and forced the check-out agent to mark every ding, scratch, spot, etc. Oh, and don’t forget to thoroughly check inside for dirt, torn seats, etc.

  • KarlaKatz

    ditto on the glasses prescription update; and, maybe a monitor from this Century would help: the damage is definitely significant.

  • emanon256

    I am the same way. I would have refused that car if it was not boldly noted.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    I looked at the photo several times and can’t see any damage. Another poster here mentioned pics, plural, and I don’t see a link to any other photos.

    However, rental car agencies wave people off way too much for Alamo to take the stance, “It didn’t show on previous rentals”. To me, that really isn’t a smoking gun in any way. Truth be told, it sounds like a desperate ploy to get you to allow them to continue their strongarming of the OP.

    Chris, you need to shake this one off and know you did the right thing.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    Like you, I take photos with my phone when I rent a car but I have to be honest, I never e-mailed them. That, to me, is absolutely genius! I’ll try to remember that one the next time I rent.

  • Alamo caused itself the problem this time… I didn’t vote because I don’t think anything you did was incorrect and there is no way to tell if Mills did this or not. Then Alamo jumped first and looked later. If they had provided the images to you BEFORE they made promises and sent out letters, this might have turned out differently. This is another situation where if Mills had gotten out the phone and taken pix when she had the initial trouble she describes, then there is a story trail. She didn’t, so yeah… that’s not small damage and I think she gets the bill.

  • JimDavisHouston

    I think you made a Boo-Boo, Chris.
    Sorry to say this, but Ms. Mills is responsible in my eyes. ALWAYS note damage, nicks, and scratches on the contract, and have an employee sign it. If the employee refuses, find a manager. And don’t forget stone chips in the glass. You can hit a bump, and the chip can run a crack across the windscreen. then you’re stuck with it if you didn’t note it.
    Renters have to take responsibility for themselves. “I’m in a hurry” doesn’t cut it.

  • Grant Ritchie

    I’m not unsure about this one at all. When Mills “tried to report the damage, an employee waived (sic) her off.” Sorry Alamo, but you can’t have it both ways. When your employee “waved” Mills off, he or she also waived any claim you might have had against her for pre-existing damages.

  • MarkKelling

    Maybe a video would be better then.

  • Carchar

    Judge Judy: Where is the itemized bill of the damage?

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    I read this story this morning and have been thinking ever since.
    It’s entirely possible that Ms. Mills had only scraches in that area when she checked the car out. It’s also possible that more damage was done in the same spot, unknown to Ms. Mills. I once saw a person dent in the side of their car by pulling alongside a post too closely who was unaware he was doing so until I got his attention. She may have caused the damage herself in such a way, or another person may have damaged the car. If the damage was unknown to her, she would have turned the car in and disputed the “scratches”, since she had already advised Alamo about the pre-existing scratches, not knowing that these were new scratches and new damage.
    All of this is hypothetical, but it offers a situation where the OP thought she was innocent but damage occurred while the car was in her care, custody and control. Both Alamo and Ms. Mills would have been “right”. In that case, Chris’ advocacy for Ms. Mills was the correct thing to do.
    I do think that if my hypothesis is correct, Ms. Mills is responsible for the bill and not Alamo. However, this hypothesis cannot be answered yes/no at this point in time. I appreciate that Alamo has resolved the issue by dropping the matter, having given the customer the benefit of the doubt. Thank you, Chris, for advocating for Ms. Mills, as you did so in good faith.

  • JenniferFinger

    I voted “yes” but that’s assuming that Ms. Mills really did cause the damage. As you pointed out, we really don’t know-especially since Alamo didn’t follow procedures and document anything beforehand and just waved off Ms. Mills when she tried to document it.

  • Bill___A

    I think that damage needs to be documented before renting the car. I’ve had the car rental people say it doesn’t matter also in the case of small scratches, but I insist that it be done and then it is.

  • pplaresilly

    well said and well done!

  • BMG4ME

    Most people are honest.

  • AgentSteve

    The best way to protect yourself when renting a car, one that you can clearly see has damage, is to REFUSE the car and demand another. While pictures “might” help you dispute a charge/claim, they aren’t foolproof iron-clad evidence (given today’s technology to manipulate the picture). Unless the car rental documents in detail any and all damage you bring to their attention, don’t take the car! Any time a representative says “don’t worry about it”, the red-flag is flying high!

  • WestPointWife03

    Totally aside from this particular problem, your ethics quandry absolutely reminds me of some lectures in mass media courses in college 10 years ago. It’s so important that those in our field be ethical because you can influence so much by swaying public opinion. Remember the “Hypodermic Needle Theory?” We don’t tell the public what to think, but what to to think about? It’s nice to know that you take that responsibility seriously!

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