Do I really have to pay this “congestion” charge in London?

It’s been almost a year since Terry Bienstock rented a Peugeot 3008 Hybrid in London, and for almost as long, he’s been fighting Avis over a pesky $162 traffic ticket.

The fee is something we Americans are unlikely to connect with: an £11.50 daily “congestion” charge London imposes on most motor vehicles operating within central London between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Bienstock believes the fee, which includes £30 in “administrative” charges, wasn’t adequately disclosed when he rented from Avis and therefore isn’t authorized to charge his card. He wants me to persuade the car rental company to refund his $162.

For those of you just tuning in, this feature is called Should I Take The Case? and it’s a completely unvetted case where you, the reader, tell me if I should advocate for a consumer.

Ready?

Bienstock, who rented his car for three weeks last March, says he received a written notification of a nondescript “traffic offense” about a month after he returned to the States.

There was no explanation, and contrary to the customer agreement, Avis did not offer me the chance to contest the charge. Instead, Avis paid it and charged me a fee for paying it.

It took some time, but I finally found out that the charge from the City of London was not a traffic offense, but a congestion fee. Avis neither informed me of the possibility of such a fee, nor gave me the opportunity to contest it, and simply charged my AmEx account.

Bienstock disputed the charges in a firmly-written email:

I just received your letter claiming a right to impose a fee on my credit card for a City of London Usage Charge. I dispute your right to do so under the terms and conditions of the rental agreement, and demand you reverse any such charge.

The charge from the City of London is not a ‘traffic or parking charge. ‘Usage charges are nowhere mentioned in the terms and conditions, and are on any list of fees (as required) to be disclosed.

This charge, which I dispute (but you paid before I could even dispute it), was never disclosed by Avis or the City, and I have no idea what it is for or how I would have avoided it. The City also has no recourse against a US citizen for the charge and it should not have been paid.

You are not authorized to charge this against my credit card and I will so inform American Express.

I should note that Bienstock isn’t just a card-carrying frequent renter, but also an attorney. His email prompted this reply from Avis:

Thank you for your reply. I regret that we have failed to adequately address this complaint so far and offer my apologies for the inconvenience and considerable time elapsed since these issues were first highlighted.

I have reviewed your rental information in details and I can confirm that the levied Administration charges and penalties stand correct.

Regarding point 1 in your letter of the 9th of August, we were unable to transfer liability. The authorities and companies are within their rights to reject the representation and our records show that it was not accepted in [your case] which relates to a congestion charge billed by Transport for London.

As per the documents received from the local authority the vehicle was driven into the congestion charging zone without payment. Therefore our Traffic offence department had to apply the penalty charge and it has been added to your rental costs as per our terms and conditions of rental, Clauses 5(d) and 2(f).

ln point 2 you correctly note that we are not allowed to bill you the congestion charge for entering the Congestion Zone in London. However, that is not what happened and I would like to clarify this misunderstanding.

Clauses 5(d) and 2(f) ensure that the renter of the vehicle accepts liability for any and all fines during the rental. ln your case it seems that Transport for London believes that you failed to pay the relevant fees to enter the London Congestion Zone and Avis, as the owner of the vehicle, has been fined by Transport for London because of that.

Is your head spinning yet? So is mine.

Related story:   After van problems "ruined" our vacation, why won't Avis offer a refund?

But who’s right?

Well, in a sense both are correct. Avis’ lawyers made sure they wrote their contracts so that they could charge customers for anything they want after the rental, including parking offenses, speeding fines and damage to the vehicle. That’s an industry standard.

But Bienstock is also right. Avis should have explicitly warned him about the congestion charge. After all, he rented a vehicle in in London. That’s a little bit like failing to mention they drive on the left-hand side of the road in the U.K. I said “a little bit.” He’s not the first person to complain about congestion charges, and I’m sure he won’t be the last.

So why doesn’t Avis tell customers about the fees? Did it forget? Or could it possibly be the “administrative fee” it tacks on to each penalty received by the city of London? I wonder how many tourists simply allow a car rental company like Avis’ to let the charges stand, believing it’s not worth their time.

The more I think about Bienstock’s case, the more inclined I am to get involved. I know, I’m probably tilting at yet another windmill, but something about this process feels wrong. Even if I never recover his $162, I would at least get another nonresponse, and possibly from Avis’ legal team. I wonder how much their lawyers charge per hour?

Should I take Terry Bienstock's case?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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