A fee for lighting up in my rental? But I don’t smoke

smokeQuestion: My wife and I traveled to Las Vegas for a trade show. I decided to use my credit card points to cover my car rental through Dollar Rent a Car.

At the car rental desk I was pressured to take the optional insurance, but I told them I had checked with my insurance agent and that I was covered. After 10 minutes of saying “no” she insisted on making a copy of my credit card. I let her and went on my way.

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I rented the car for five days, drove a total of 83 miles, and returned the car with a full tank. A Dollar employee checked the car when I returned it and said everything was “OK.”

On my next credit card bill I noticed a $125 charge from Dollar, 19 days after the car was returned. I complained to Visa, and a month later I received a letter from Visa saying that Dollar claimed the car needed excessive cleaning due to pet hair, smoke and dirt). We don’t smoke and we don’t have a pet. Dollar refuses to remove the fee. Can you help? — Joe Galindo, Anoka, Minn.

Answer: Dollar should have notified you of any cleaning charges when you returned the car, not as a surprise on your credit card bill almost three weeks later. Even if Dollar suspected that you’d smoked a pipe next to your Great Pyrenees after a long day of hiking in the desert, it should have notified you promptly of the cleaning fee and offered evidence of your allegedly messy ways.

What kind of evidence? Well, photos would be a good start. A signed incident report, documenting the condition of the vehicle might work, too. You didn’t get any such proof, and neither did your credit card.

But in disputing this charge, you took a shortcut, moving straight to a credit-card dispute instead of contacting the car rental company directly. I might have started with a brief, polite email to Dollar sent through its website, and if necessary, an appeal to a manager at the local or national level.

A credit card dispute removes an entire level of appeal. Think of it as taking your small-claims case directly to a higher court. And speaking of court, your only real recourse after losing a credit-card dispute is to take your case to court. That probably wasn’t practical, given the amount of your claim.

I think you would have had a good chance of prevailing in court, by the way. Dollar didn’t offer any documentation, as far as I can tell. It simply asked you, and your credit card, to take its word.

I contacted Dollar on your behalf, and it removed the $125 charge from your credit card.

Are car rental companies unjustly enriching themselves by charging bogus cleaning fees?

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41 thoughts on “A fee for lighting up in my rental? But I don’t smoke

  1. When the OP says “a copy of my credit card” I seriously hope he didn’t hand over the card and let the high school dropout working the desk photocopy it. I’m hoping this was a digital imprint…

    If not, I suggest he cancel that card immediately.

    1. While I agree with most here that this is most likely an attempt at a scam I would appreciate it if you stop referring to All car rental employees as high school dropouts. I have a 4 year degree and am working at one of the top 3 for the advancement opportunities and wide variety of business experience. To assume that all car rental employees are uneducated scammers seems ignorant and rude.

  2. How can anyone with an ounce of sense even vote no on this one? If the charge is bogus, that means they are unjustly enriching themselves. I guess, at this time, the two no votes must work as TSA screeners and feel theft is perfectly fine.

    1. I didn’t vote. Once again, I guess it has to do with the wording. A “bogus” fee may be unjust, but it may also be a mistake. We don’t have Dollar’s side of the story.

      I had the same thing happen to me with Avis. It turns out it was an employee who took the car for a bit of a joyride after my return and then tried to update the return mileage…and in doing so ended up charging me a refueling charge. (I found out when I received an “updated” receipt the next AM by email.) When I called the location, the manager of the location was a bit aggressive and surprised that I happened to call at that moment as she informed me of the cleaning charge that she was preparing. After a brief discussion, she realized that I returned the car the previous evening and saw the initial check-in with the correct mileage and fuel level. She apologized and reversed everything. (Even indicated one of the people involved on one of the check in’s was a heavy smoker.) Were they trying to unjustly profit by charging a bogus fee? Nope, they made a mistake and corrected it. (Without getting my credit card company involved BTW.) I’ve since gotten to know the manager a bit better and am confident she runs the operation ethically.

      Also had a problem with Budget putting a claim in on my insurance for a damaged vehicle. They were surprised I had no recollection of the supposed incident! They sent me a police report and the date of the incident was outside of my rental period. Same thing, they apologized and the mistake was cleared up. The had contacted my insurance company and then later contacted them back to make sure the claim was removed. (My insurance company had heard from me several times before it was proven a mistake and, was no where near paying without a thorough investigation per my request.)

      1. I hope your kidding. It happened to you twice and you think they made a mistake. I don’t buy it. If the rental car companies are going to make a claim for damage they should do it right on the spot. Once a receipt is given that should end any chance of them putting in a damage claim. If you can avoid renting a car do so at all cost.

        1. Why couldn’t it be a mistake? Two claims at two different places in how many years? In the second case there was a police report, just the wrong renter.

      2. If the charge is a “mistake”, then it isn’t bogus now is it? It is a mistake. A bogus charge is one where they charge you for something you didn’t do and provide no proof of it. It sounds like in your example (the one where the employee tried changing documentation), that was a mistake caused by a dishonest employee. However, in the OP case, being charged for a smoke odor when the person is not a smoker, and not backing down until a consumer advocate gets involved, that is a bogus charge they got called on.

        1. Yes, I think of “bogus” as an intentional untrue act to generate income. In my cases that did not apply. I simply contacted the companies involved and they corrected it, no need to dispute the charge or get a consumer advocate involved.

          But the OP in this case never bothered to contact Dollar direct. Had I contacted my credit card company first in my case, I suspect I would have had the same result. Even Chris suggests the OP went out of order.

          The Avis one involved the guy in the evening who checked the car in decided to drive it home and back the next AM. When he parked it, one of the other rental agents smelled the smoke and assumed it was from whoever dropped it off the previous evening…me. THAT person then noticed the mileage and gas differed from what was recorded when I dropped it off and “corrected” it. The evening agent smoked so much that the odor stayed on him and stayed in the car, he didn’t even smoke in the car.

          Maybe the Avis guy in my case now works at Dollar!

          1. Just to throw out my 2 cents…the origin of the word bogus is from a machine called a bogus and it was a machine used to print counterfeit money hence the money became bogus money.

      3. In both your examples the rental company failed to perform normal due diligence on the claim. In both examples the “damage” occured outside of the rental period – something extremely easy to verify. This isn’t a mistake as you claim, but entrenched poor operating procedure. This is something that should rarely happend with a legitimate company.

    2. I voted “no.” While I think this does occur, answering “yes” suggests that the rental companies do this systematically. I’ve never seen any evidence of that. While it’s true that if this happens even twice (once each at two different companies), the answer is technically “yes,” but the spirit of the question suggests, I think, a “no.”

      1. If you read that condition into the question, I would agree with you. But as it is written, that condition was not part of the question.

  3. I refuse to rent from any company that tries to ram their insurance down my throat. Have walked away from both a Thrifty and Enterprise counter before and never rented from either company again. Avis doesn’t hard sell this (at least they haven’t to me yet!) and I have no problem paying a little more if I have to in order to avoid the ridiculous hard sell.

  4. I went through a similar bogus claim with Hertz Zurich a few years ago. I had taken their full comprehensive insurance on the Fiesta like I always do when I rent at Hertz but that time there was still a substantial franchise (SF 500) with it and they charged my Visa CC for its full amount a couple weeks after I had returned the car at Kloten where it was inspected and no remaks made about its status.
    After inquiring about this additional charge on my CC they claimed I had returned the car with baby poo on the seats, dirty nappies all over, and … a baby-seat so soiled it was almost unrecuperable.
    I was 60 at the time, no baby and the sole driver/occupant for the rental duration.
    I had returned the car absolutely clean and, of course, there never was a baby-seat in the car included in the rental.
    After a heated exchange of angry e-mails they relented and brought the bogus charge down to ‘only’ SF 200 because, so they said, baby or no baby I still had reurned a dirty car …

  5. I can’t answer since I really do not know the answer. We can probably say that certain charges are bogus but I do not think that the question posed is answerable. I usually rent from Dollar and I personally have never had an issue with them.

  6. Dollar has been pulling this stuff for as long as I can remember, which, trust me, is a really long time. I’m amazed that it’s still in business.

  7. The only way to stop this is for both parties to do a walk through of the vehicle and annotate any damage prior to driving off the lot and then again when the car is returned. Any damage should be noted at that time. If the rental company misses it, tough.

    Rental agencies don’t want to pay for the extra employees do do this so the cycle continues.

  8. Years ago we rented a car and had a flat tire. We called the company (were not that far away from the lot) and they sent a repair truck. No problem. When we brought the car back there was a large charge on the bill for the flat tire fixing. We protested it and although it took a long time, finally got a rebate. Long ago.

  9. I have always rented from the “top 3 rental car companies and have never had a issue with them. Sounds like a bogus claim and I would make them prove that you were responsible for the additional cleaning charge. Your credit card company should stand behind you and I would tell them that this is not true and let them investigate the claim

  10. Another lovely way that so-called reputable companies have come up with to cheat their customers. It goes on and on. It hasn’t happened to me, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. I do smoke and occasionally will have a cigarette in a rental car, with the windows open of course. You’d have to smoke many cigarettes to make a vehicle stinky. The current ethical rationale applies here: if we can make a few bucks on people who don’t notice the charge on their credit card months later, that’s a good idea. Disgusting.

    1. Having the windows open only helps a bit. Are these nonsmoking rental cars that you smoke in? The person smoking also retains the cigarette odor and that gets into the car, so it is possible that a smoker has lit up outside the car, but the smell on their body and clothes lingers inside and it is foul!

    2. Having the window down does not help nearly as much as you think. One cigarette is enough to stink up a car to a non smoker. Our sense of smell is much better than a smokers.

    3. I checked the different rental companies sites and Hertz, Avis, Budget, Enterprise, Alamo, National, Dollar, and Thrifty all maintain 100% smoke free fleets in the US. Unless you are renting from an off brand consistently or are renting cars internationally, you are violating the rules about smoking. And from your above comment I bet you would be the first to complain if you ere charged a fee for smoking in a rental vehicle even though you freely admit to doing so. And then we wonder/complain why rental companies have such tough policies. Geez.

    4. What rental firm? I will not rent a car from a firm that has many ‘smoker’ cars available for rent. The first smells of smoke make me sick.

  11. So I guess now I not only have to take before and after photos, I also have to take photos of the upholstery and send a documented air sample from inside the car to a lab to prove I wasn’t smoking.

  12. I fear renting a car because of games like this. So, I try using addons, which cost $$. But, I am also trying to protect myself, at a lower cost from schemes like this.

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