Towed car, blown budget


Q: I recently rented a car from Budget Rent A Car in Charlotte, N.C. While I was in Charleston, S.C., someone stole my purse, which contained the keys to the car.

I filed a police report and called Budget, asking if they could send someone with a duplicate key. A Budget representative said the car had to be towed back to Charlotte. I was assured that I would be charged only a key duplication fee and towing charges.

Several days after I returned home, I began receiving phone calls from Budget, inquiring about the car. I explained that the car had been towed, and was again assured that there would be no extra fees. This happened several times.

Imagine my surprise when I got the bill. Budget charged my credit card additional daily fees for four weeks, for a total of $3,551. I disputed the charge, and my credit card company sided with me. But Budget is still trying to collect the money. Can you help?

— Maggie O’Brien, San Francisco

A: Budget has no right to charge you for a car that you’ve already returned — unless, of course, you didn’t bring the vehicle back to Budget.

When you drive a car back to your rental location, the return is easy to verify. An employee signs off on the car and hands you a final bill. But that didn’t happen to you. It couldn’t have, because your rental car was stuck in Charleston, and Budget was 200 miles away. So you “returned” the car with a phone call. But when you do something by phone, it’s difficult to prove, as you have found out.

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In retrospect, it might have been wise for you to wait until the tow truck arrived and then ask for some documentation of the pickup. That may sound a little obsessive, but the alternative — paying thousands of dollars in daily charges — certainly makes the wait seem worth it.

I checked with Budget to find out what went wrong with your rental. A company representative said the Charlotte location didn’t follow the proper procedures when the car was towed back; as a result, the return was never recorded in its system. “The car never showed up as actually returned,” said Budget spokeswoman Susan McGowan.

That’s one part of the mystery solved. But if Budget has found the car, why the charges?

“I’m still trying to get to the bottom of that,” McGowan told me.

Fair enough. So if your car has been found, and Budget acknowledges that it should not have charged you, then what can you do about that $3,551 bill? Disputing the charge was the right move. You might also consider supplying additional documentation to Budget. A copy of your return plane ticket might be enough to convince the folks in Budget’s collections department to rethink their claim.

In the end, Budget dropped its efforts to collect $3,551 from you and, as a gesture of goodwill, promised to send you a voucher for a free rental.


Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

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