Alamo bills renter $1,963 for an undamaged car

Elias Asch rents a car from Alamo for one night and returns it the next day undamaged. Then he receives a bill for $1,963. Can we help him get Alamo to drop the claim?

Question: We rented a car from Alamo for exactly one night. We returned it the next morning completely free of any damage. Nothing was noted, and the attendant said nothing to us.

We later got a short letter stating we had a claim from the “Damage Recovery Unit.” The letter asked us for our insurance and credit card information, but it did not list an amount for the bill or what damage had occurred. It did contain an email contact which seemed a little shady, so we guessed (hoped) it was a scam — perhaps the Alamo database was hacked or something.

I still think it is a scam, but an Alamo-approved scam. Today we received a similar letter, but this time there was a bill from a repair shop and loss of use totaling $1,963. Then we were sent pictures of scratches on a minivan of the same kind we rented. The pictures were not clear, and in most of them, we weren’t even really sure what we were looking at. The car was also not in the covered parking lot that we dropped it off in.

I’m just sick — I don’t know what these pictures are of! Did subsequent damage occur after it was out of our possession? Is it even the same car we rented? The repair bill is vague and confusing and very long. All we know for certain is there was zero damage when we returned the car.

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Alamo has continued to bill me and threaten me with “final notice” letters indicating that they will sue me if I don’t pay for the damage.

Can you help us get Alamo to drop this fraudulent claim? — Elias Asch, Sacramento, Calif.

Answer: Your experience is sadly common. Because car rental agencies have found that charging for damages can be very profitable, sometimes even more so than base car rental fees, many renters such as you have found themselves receiving letters from “Damage Recovery Units” or other organizations that help the agencies collect whatever revenues they can from their customers by billing them for vague, often nonexistent damage claims.

Alamo’s website answers your question:

Am I responsible for the condition of the rental vehicle?
Vehicle Condition:

  • Unless limited by state law, Alamo holds the renter responsible for damage to, loss or theft of, the vehicle including any part of optional accessory regardless of fault or negligence.
  • Renter shall pay the amount necessary to repair the vehicle. …
  • Unless prohibited by law, the renter is also responsible for other costs including but not limited to; loss of use, administrative fees, diminishment of value, towing, storage and/or impound fees and other costs to recover the vehicle and establish damages.

Unfortunately for car renters such as yourself, Alamo is using this provision to bill you for whatever it can get away with if you can’t prove that the damage was pre-existing or not caused by you.

The best way to fight these claims is to carefully photograph the car, both when you receive it and when you return it, in order to have documented proof of the car’s condition at all times while the car is in your possession — including any pre-existing damage as well as any normal wear and tear, which you should not be billed for.

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You brought your case to our forum, where our advocates gave you resources and suggestions for how to fight this claim, including letters to write to Alamo in which you requested copies of documentation and photos on which Alamo was basing its claim. You might also have utilized our company contacts for Alamo to appeal your case to Alamo executives.

An Alamo agent finally responded to your letters, advising you that Alamo will tell the Damage Recovery Unit to drop its claim against you.

Are car rental charges like Elias Asch's a scam?

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Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

  • Alan Gore

    You can tell it’s a scam when the company always drops such claims like a hot rock as soon as the victim spreads sales-damaging publicity on sites like this one.

  • Rebecca

    He returned it in person, to an agent, and they still did this? That’s awful. This is one of the main, important lessons I have learned here that I share with friends and family. Take photos, at drop off and return, and make sure you note any scratch when you pick up the vehicle, even if the agent says “it’s smaller than [a quarter, a golf ball, fill in here]”. Always try to return to an actual person with no damage noted on the receipt, keeping the receipt somewhere for at least a year. I honestly believe when they see you taking photos and being vigilant, this will prevent 99 out of 100 bogus claims, and they’ll move on to someone that isn’t paying attention.

    I should add – I obviously believe that if the car actually did sustain damage, even if it wasn’t directly caused by the renter, the renter should be responsible. Normally, I’m the type to give a business the benefit of the doubt, most companies don’t pursue money that isn’t due to them. The number of these bogus car damage claims I’ve seen here leads me to give the benefit of the doubt to the renter and not the agency. I find it somewhat unsettling that this issue receives so little attention (I’ve told countless people and sent them here with examples, only one had heard of this scam before). I’m not sure what the answer is, but it is definitely widespread and problematic.

  • Rebecca

    It really is amazing they continue to get away with this. In almost any other industry, this would have been shut down with some negative publicity. Which leads me to believe the profit generators – the so called “damage recovery units” – must be making some serious profits. Because the lobbyists they’re no doubt using have to cost millions.

  • ctporter

    I am beginning to think that perhaps the rental car companies should be required to have full insurance coverages on their fleets and carry the burden of ALL repairs themselves. Probably would need some sort of mechanism to ensure rental car drivers are not willfully or carelessly damaging the cars but these “scratches” and small dings etc claims are much to subject to scams.

  • Alan Gore

    That’s why you always, always return the car to an agent, getting a signoff (AND pictures of your own) even if it means adding a day to your trip.

  • taxed2themax

    I agree..IF it is returned to an agent and the agent signs off on the return being free of damage* then I think to come back later is wrong.. The part of (*) that I would hold back on is the notion of concealed damage. While probably not all that common on a statistical basis, I do think that there can be legit damages that are not immediately nor reasonably visible in a timely fashion at the point of return, be that due to the natural placement of the part(s) in question and/or due to deliberate concealment — a quick thought as to what that might be is something like engine or other ‘under-the-hood’ parts or carpet damage under floor mats.
    Kind of like a hotel and hotel check-out, I think there’s a balance that has to be found between the need for a time-efficient check-out/return process and good accounting of the transaction (are all the hotel towels in the room? was there smoking evidence?, room damage, etc).. In the end, I think every effort should be made to have a final return assessment made — but I do cede that there can be limited cases (again, that would only be for proven concealed damage claims) where this would not be discovered at that time — but do think from the macro-level, it would cut down on these post-return claims.

  • KennyG

    And who do you think will wind up paying for this new “requirement”? All of us, even those that don’t actually damage their car [not saying the OP did any damage]. Thanks, but no thanks, I dont think I want to be subsidizing someone elses careless driving. And I sure as heck want to avoid more federal government regulations, which seem to always carry along with them many unintended consequences, usually bad.

  • MarkKelling

    They do have insurance — for while the vehicle is in their control. Once it is rented, the responsibility for covering damage passes to the renter. So just like an individual owner of a vehicle, they want to not file as many claims as possible so their insurance rate does not go up.

    I’m not defending the way they go about it where it seems they go after the easiest target and keep trying until they find a renter that just pays. Or the way they charge repeatedly for the same minor scrapes and scratches to different renters. There needs to be better tracking of damage and what is paid toward the damage so that the next renter (and the nest, and the next …) don’t keep getting charged. I know the rental companies would object to this because it would eliminate a large part of their current income model. I’m also not saying that car rental companies should be required to actually fix the damage they claim and receive payment for (no more than an individual owner is required to do except in places where the law requires it).

  • taxed2themax

    I agree.. Just from a distance the idea of a single surcharge-like cost either baked in or added on to *all* rentals really would fix the majority of the problems — but I also agree that it effectively means the overwhelming majority will be “paying” for losses suffered/caused by the vast minority – be that due to poor driving practices or otherwise.

  • AJPeabody

    That’s exactly what insurance does, many pay small so that no one pays large. So, you can pay through a surcharge, or a premium, or through a merchant’s slight increase in prices to cover the credit card discount that goes partly to pay for credit card rental car coverage, or as part of your own auto insurance, or . . . But pay you will.

  • AAGK

    The scary part is that rental car companies do track this stuff. We are just not privy to it absent a formal discovery request or court order.

  • AAGK

    I would support a law re: car rental record-keeping practices. Perhaps the gov should require a rental comp to provide customers with a certification of some sort or details of the last service date, the last time a renter was billed for any damage along with major penalties for falsifying these docs. Maybe that would discourage some of these this stuff?

  • MarkKelling

    You are correct. I should have said “better tracking visible to the renters.”

  • AAGK

    Agreed!:) I do wonder how deep the fraud goes. Based on this site, it seems pretty extensive. They probably overcharge anyone who drives away without taking photos. Maybe it’s time for a regulatory body to intervene?Maybe people do bang the cars up more than they want to admit or realize? I’m not sure.

  • PsyGuy

    Last Week Tonight should do a series on Damage Recovery Units. They are total scams. I would have gone to the lot, taken some pictures of a vehicle matching yours and then sued them small claims court.

  • PsyGuy

    You know what we need, is some consumer lobbyists.

  • PsyGuy

    Be sure to get a photo of the agent you returned it too. Better yet just bring a film grew with you.

  • PsyGuy

    Agents have no authority to sign off on anything, it clearly states in the contract that they are not empowered agents of the company, and that only a corporate “officer” can modify the contract. You need to have the manager approve anything.

  • PsyGuy

    Those costs will be passed onto renters. I don’t want to subsidize someone else’s insurance costs or damages.

  • taxed2themax

    I am not talking about modifying the contract terms – which I do agree a non-officer can’t do.. What I am referring to is a local agent making an assessment, in writing, as to the vehicles condition at the time it is returned. This does not mean they would waive, alter, add or delete any contractual language elements — which would be out of their scope of authority, but rather simply act as a data recorder at the time of return.

  • taxed2themax

    I agree.. it spreads out risk.. but IF that’s the way the system will work in cases like this (again, this is hypothetical for discussion purposes here) that being a surcharge is applied that then I think like it is with most all personal auto policies, the RATE or amount charged to any one consumer would var based on their demonstrated driving history. I agree that no matter how you design it, there WILL BE a cost to be paid.. and one can argue where that cost should be placed – but it will be there.

  • The Original Joe S

    TO THE HMFIC / CEO: Here’s a subpoena to court. Don’t show up; I’ll win by default, and impound your assets. Don’t reply to me; I’ll not entertain your missive; send to my savage lawyer. If you send to me, I’ll round-file it. If you send it certified, I won’t sign for it. I won’t settle out of court; we’re going to the judge.
    To everyone else involved with this scam: here’re YOUR subpoenae. Don’t show up; be in contempt.
    To the Attorney General: Please pursue criminal charges against these scamming extortionists, too the extent you determine appropriate.
    To any other govt regulatory body: request action, as appropriate.
    To Chris Elliot: Publicize this scam

  • The Original Joe S

    You’re right: photos [ date & Time imbed ] before and after, photo the guy who hands you the car and takes it back. Videos are good also; I do both.
    “when they see you taking photos and being vigilant, this will prevent 99
    out of 100 bogus claims, and they’ll move on to someone that isn’t
    paying attention.” YUPPER!!!!!!!!!1

  • The Original Joe S

    I shove the camera UNDER the car and shoot. DITTO the top. As for “concealed engine damage”, I won’t accept a hi-mileage wreck, or one with “funny” sounds. If they haven’t done maintenance, it’s not MY fault if it fails. Ask for the maintenance records. That should shut ’em up! If I rented a stick shift, I’d test the clutch for engagement. If flaky, reject.

  • The Original Joe S

    good answer

  • The Original Joe S

    Who doesn’t have a phone with camera nowdays? TAKE PIX!

  • taxed2themax

    I my gut I don’t think this whole issue is a deliberate, systematic scam deigned for unearned profit.. What I DO think this is, is a combination of several factors — two of which are:
    a) the companies less-than-ideal record-keeping of prior damage so that when a vehicle is damaged,that this then becomes a matter of record for all future rentals, UNLESS it is certified as being repaired.. and
    b) a time-constrained return process which doesn’t really afford the best environment to make an accurate recording of the vehicle condition.

    I think the combination of the two are the drivers to the problem.. That said, do I think some locales exacerbate this? I am sure…but on a system-wide basis, I don’t think it’s a premeditated policy to do so

  • The Original Joe S

    In MY gut, I do think it is premeditated policy. It’s a big money-maker, and some people will be scared out of their wits, and pay up. ME, I go into attack mode when some piece of dung tries to scam me. Right for the throat.

  • JimLoomis

    Good heavens! Photos before and after the rental. Photos underneath the car. Photos of the top of the car. Photo of the agent. What a pain! Truthfully, I don’t bother with that and never have. If I’m renting in the U.S., my personal auto insurance covers me; if I’m renting abroad, my credit card company covers me. I will never rent from any of the second tier companies, especially Enterprise and Alamo, because those are the names that keep popping up most often with these fake damage scams. I always rent from Avis if possible and am an”Avis Preferred” member. I do believe that helps.

  • “Your experience is sadly common. Because car rental agencies have found that charging for damages can be very profitable”

    Actually, long term it isn’t!

    Would you use that company again? Will you tell family, friends, and as many folk as you can on social media? Yes, of course you will, and eventually the ‘thieves’ get what’s coming . . . a big loss in legitimate revenue.

  • Better still, kidnap the agent and keep them as proof! ;-)

  • jim6555

    I would hold the agent for ransom. The rental car companies can afford to pay to get their agent back using some of the money that they’ve scammed from their customers through phony damage claims.

  • jim6555

    I would like to see a requirement that rental companies completely photograph vehicles as they are leaving the rental location and again, as they are returned. If a rental company makes a claim against a customer, the before and after pictures must be made available to the renter to substantiate the damage. No photos, no claim.

  • When is this going to be taken to the Attorney General in each state?… someone like Eric Schneiderman in NY? I am not an attorney, but this looks like something bordering on a RICO case, insurance fraud (when claimed against a driver’s policy) or both.

    Maybe Elliott, et al, should engage them (Eric Schneiderman types) or, perhaps, someone at a Federal level, given the interstate nature of this occurring.

    It needs to be pursued criminally to stop, as it seems to only be increasing and getting bolder.

  • Rebecca

    I really believe it is a franchise problem more than a corporate problem. There isn’t necessarily much incentive for a corporate location to do this. But there is a HUGE motivation for a franchisee to do it. I’d be willing to bet if you looked at all of these similar bogus cases, we’ll over 75% would be at franchises.

  • AAGK

    They can’t. They are too busy taking selfies and pictures of their plates of food.

  • gpx21dlr

    All these stories about car renting on ELLIOT makes me glad I don’t travel for business and have to rent cars. Yikes!

  • LonnieC

    This simply doesn’t pass the smell test.

  • DepartureLevel

    Years ago when you rented a car there was a checklist that was properly marked/noted at the time of pickup by the rental company. A copy was given to the renter and any differences upon return of the vehicle would settle it, right ?
    WHY IS THAT NOT DONE ANYMORE ??, I SIMPLY DON’T UNDERSTAND HOW CAR RENTAL COMPANIES CAN DECIDE AFTER THE FACT that someone did some damage. Again, why is the consumer responsible for poor record keeping on the part of the company they are doing business with? Makes absolutely no sense. Also, not all people have an iPhone, they shouldn’t be the ones to have to take these “precautions” and do all the work.

  • joycexyz

    Do you think they really care about the agent???

  • joycexyz

    I agree. If it weren’t a premeditated policy, it wouldn’t be so pervasive.

  • joycexyz

    Let’s not forget photos inside the trunk. Remember the spilled paint story? And, or course, the engine compartment. Who knows what the Damage Recovery Unit might dream up?

  • cscasi

    That is hard to answer yes or no. I believe some of the letters demanding payment for damage done to a rental someone rented are legitimate and others are not. They are becoming ever more prevalent and renters have ot take precautions to protect themselves. It is a shame, but it is definitely a fact of life these days. Glad they were able to get this case dropped.

  • NotThatBrooklynGuy

    Dagnabbit, Al! You said exactly what I was thinking. If a renter legitimately did $2000 worth of damage to my car I sure wouldn’t back down so quickly or maybe ever.

  • The Original Joe S

    You could have a point. However, what of Enterprise? Are they franchised, or corporate owned? They are seemingly the wurst.

  • The Original Joe S

    and 100,000 pix of the grandkids!

  • The Original Joe S

    No, I missed the paint story, but thanks. Good advice. Trunk and engine compartment also.

  • Joe Blasi

    Some has hit for concealed engine / clutch / other damage. When they where just backing out of the parking space at the rent a car place.

  • PsyGuy

    LOL, agents aren’t worth anything. They will just mint another one.

  • Joe Blasi

    and then they move to hidden damage where the camera can’t see or under the hood stuff.

  • jim6555

    It would be their responsibility to photograph under the car, the roof area and under the hood. The rule should be “no before and after photos, no damage claim allowed”.

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