In the car rental wars, which side is right?

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Eric Eatman didn’t do it. He’s sure of that.

When he rented a car in Atlantic City recently, he noticed several scrapes on the side of his vehicle, which he brought to the attention of an employee.

“The agent assured me that as long as the scratches were smaller than a dollar bill it didn’t matter,” says Eatman, a notary public from Brandon, Fla.

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But after he returned the car to Enterprise, a representative claimed he damaged the vehicle, and the company eventually sent him a $3,096 bill, including a $289 bill for “loss of use.”

“I was certain that I did not cause the damage,” he says.

Taking responsibility is never easy. But when they’re away, travelers often think they can get away with anything. Travel companies, particularly car rental companies, are understandably suspicious of their customers who balk at paying their bills. Maybe it’s time for a little detente.

How badly is the relationship frayed? Let’s put it this way: If something breaks in your rental car, you’re guilty until proven innocent. But with good reason. Too often, motorists invoke the “wear and tear” excuse when they’ve trashed a rental. Owning up to our actions may be the first step toward bridging this chasm of distrust.

When James Pillow returned his car to Alamo recently, he watched another renter back his car into a concrete pole. “Nobody else saw it happen,” says Pillow, who works for a sports memorabilia site in Orlando. He could see the driver hesitating — should he say something or pretend it never happened? After a moment, the customer walked over to an attendant and confessed.

“It was very noble,” he says. “Especially given the damage.”

It helps to take responsibility when things go wrong. When Vicki Winters, a social media manager who lives in New York, visited Spain this summer, she found a parking ticket on her rental. Initially, she and her husband decided not to tell their car rental company, and they might have gotten away with it. Tracking down a customer who lives more than 3,000 miles away — never mind matching a ticket to the right driver — is a challenge for even the best car rental company.

“We waffled some more,” she says. “Then we decided to come clean and show them the ticket.”

To her surprise, an employee told her she was off the hook.

“Honesty was the best policy,” says Winters.

But it’s equally important to take a stand when you didn’t do it. I reviewed the correspondence between Eatman and Enterprise and saw a string of vehement denials by Eatman. What’s more, Enterprise couldn’t prove the dent had happened on his watch. From all appearances, he’d tried to warn the company about the pre-existing damage, and an employee had dismissed him.

I contacted Enterprise on his behalf and it agreed to review his claim.

“Sometimes, as you know, we may miss something, but we never hesitate to make things right for our customers,” Enterprise spokeswoman Laura Bryant said. “As a result, this claim has been dropped. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.”

Responsibility is a two-way street. On the one side, you have car rental companies that usually assume you’re responsible for damage if you’re the last person who rented the car. That’s not always fair. On the other side, you have motorists who might walk away from real damage and traffic tickets, actions that don’t exactly help the fragile relationship between drivers and car rental companies.

Is there a way to meet in the middle — for car rental companies to stop assuming we’re guilty of destroying their vehicles and for us to own up to our violations? Changing corporate policy may not be practical, but the next time you pick up the keys to your rental car, you can make a promise to yourself: I’ll treat this like it’s my own car.

Which of the following it more true?

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How to avoid a frivolous car rental damage claim

Take pictures or video of your vehicle — before and after. The images should be enough to exonerate you if there’s a bogus damage claim.

Report any pre-existing damage, no matter how small. Don’t let an employee reassure you with promises that smaller scratches don’t count. They do count. If the car is dented and scratched, you should refuse it.

Get insurance. Being covered means you won’t have to face a $3,096 bill. Check with your credit card company and car insurance companies before you spring for the optional insurance, which can be overpriced.

37 thoughts on “In the car rental wars, which side is right?

  1. In an ideal world, everyone would be honest. In car rental world, everyone is assumed to be dishonest. Thus we look to ways to prove honesty before the fact. I have found that ostentatiously taking pictures of every tiny mark all over the car when doing the initial walk around with the rental car clipboard guy prevents getting a phony claim on return. They look for marks who are renters, not on the car, and I think I get marked as “do not scam.”

  2. “Sometimes, as you know, we may miss something, but we never hesitate to make things right for our customers,” Enterprise spokeswoman Laura
    Bryant said. “Never hesitate” my butt! I really hate it when companies reply in a way that they only should if the fix it after the customer says “But this is a mistake!” once. He had to fight, and you had to step in as the scary consumer advocate before they fixed it.

  3. One problem with taking responsibility — I rented a car in Philadelphia earlier this year, and while parked, someone scraped against one of the doors. No idea who did it, but I also know my credit card insurance would cover it. I acknowledged the damage when I returned the car to Hertz, and filled out some long paperwork. I also notified the credit card’s insurance of the pending claim.

    Nothing happened.

    Four months later, I noticed someone I had never heard of, based in Minnesota, had put something on a credit report — Hertz outsourced the damage claim to someone I had never heard of, and with whom I had never done any business. Naturally, I assumed any mail from an unknown company is junk and ignored it (since I receive quite a few pieces of junk mail each day, I do not have time to waste to look at them all.) Hertz never notified me they were outsourcing the claim.

    Anyway, once that was realized, it was sorted out in a week — but beware when the rental company outsources the claim.

  4. Who are these people that don’t know you have to take pictures and video tape the car as well as any conversation you have with the agent. It baffles me that anyone thinks this is optional or a bad idea. In a time and world where we know what the Kardashians are doing every day of their lives how can someone still not know to take pictures of their rental car.

    My suspicion is that a number of these renters are using an “absence” of photos to get out of damage they very well may have caused.

  5. Really? I would say that the people who DO take pictures of their rental car are in the minority. The thought that one might need to do so for evidence never crosses most travelers minds. Why? Because most people trust that the rental car company is going to be honest and fair (and most of the time they’re right), and most people just want to get their car and go.

  6. If the rental car companies were honest, they would have a policy that requires their employees to note and initial damage reported by a customer at rental inception no matter how small the damage is. I’ve been brushed off by employees on the lot or at an exit booth who refuse to note seemingly minor scratches and dings. When this occurs, I ask the employee to get a manager. It is amazing how the attitude changes and they become very willing to note everything that I point out to them on the paperwork. It also helps to take photos of the vehicle when the car is picked up and when it is returned.

  7. We just rented a car from Enterprise and I couldn’t believe how many scratches and dings it had – a 2014 Camry with 6000 miles on it – we spent half an hour making sure that every last one was documented and taking pictures (well, we missed the hole in the floor mat)/ No problems when we returned it – but this sure demonstrates just how careless many renters are with rental cars (or just how much can happen to a car in the Boston area, regardless of care) – according to the manager (whom we did call over when we were renting it, only one of the most severe scratches should have been an issue…) Anyhow, they did offer us another car, it had fewer scratches, but as a “car” we preferred the Camry to drive…. On the other hand, a relative who rents cars every week for business (from Hertz) never takes pictures, never has a problem, and her comment was that virtually every rental car has some damage –

  8. I love how most rental parking garages are dimly lit so it makes it hard to find the small scratches & dings. In addition to using a digital or cell phone camera, I now carry an LED flashlight to inspect cars I rent. And while I try to be careful (I have a motto of always taking better care of someone’s else stuff as if it were my own.) I have also found that other drivers don’t think the same way. It’s those careless drivers that make me nuts & pay to carry extra insurance in cities or countries that are notorious for careless drives.

  9. Document any damage with you phone or camera BEFORE driving off the lot. Make sure your camera has a date and time stamp for proof.

  10. I would guess that the relative qualifies as a frequent renter. Some care companies like Hertz made no bones about the fact that frequent renters get a pass on minor damage.

  11. Elliot, I wish you could do something about these a**h***s that put ads into your comment section. OOOOOH, I hate them so much.

  12. It’s rare that I pick up a car first thing in the morning, when I’m fresh. It’s usually at the tale end of 12 hours of flying, dragging suitcases, and in a dark garage. I’m an experienced renter, and yes, I should take photos, but I never have.

    I rent from Hertz or Avis. I notice most of the problems here seem to be Enterprise.

  13. Funny nobody’s mentioned insurance. I assume the rental car companies are want to be thought of as vigilant about damage so renters will perceive the LDW to be worth buying, and we all know they make money on the LDW. Ironically, you’re helping them out!

  14. It seems that enterprise is the most aggressive with these claims. I rented a car and knew I was going to drive in a bad snow storm so I figured I would buy the damage waiver for the two day rental. I’m glad I did, someone hit the car when parked and did “minor damage” (basically some scrapes on the bumper) and drove off.

    The bill the loss waiver as an easy process where as long as you have the key you don’t have any responsibility.

    When I returned the car I could not believe what a hassle it was, all kinds of paperwork, follow up documents and calls after. I never had to pay anything, but the claims of “oh just hand us the keys and your on your way” are a joke.

  15. @elliottc:disqus – my husband wants to know if the scrapes on the car in the first example, the ones less than a dollar bill’s length, were the same ones that netted the $3,096 bill? I know that Mr. Eatman says that he didn’t do anything to the car, but we’re just checking.

    I always hear similar claims (less than a dollar bill, smaller than this circle, no deeper than a fingernail) and my husband gets fussy with me since I don’t believe a word of them and document the stuffing out of them, in writing and in pictures. So, you see, this is like Click and Clack, where the Magliozzi brothers play marital counselors about car-related issues. Thanks.

  16. You assume everyone who rents is a seasoned renter and well-educated in the scams of the company. There are many out there who rent once or twice every decade or so and do not follow the savvy-traveler websites.

  17. Hertz answered the poll question themselves in their latest annual filing. It states that one of their primary sources of revenue is:

    “All other operations revenues (revenues from fleet leasing and management services and other business activities, such as our third party claims management services).” (page 34)

    Their third party claims management services, or Hertz Claim Management Corporation, handles damage claims for them. That division’s income along with other operations revenue totaled $527 million for 2013 (page 16) (Nearly 5% of their total revenue). (Other operations revenue also includes the fleet management services by Donlan).

    I was only doing a quick look so I didn’t readily see where they documented how much they actually pay out to repair damages to their fleet… unless they somehow rolled it “Selling, General, and Administrative” ($1.02 billion) or “Other Expense” ($66 million).

    Chris documented Hertz’s damage documentation CRVIS a little while back (elliott dot org /blog/before-and-after-pictures-of-your-rental-car-now-thats-customer-crvis/)… it would be interesting to find out what net impact that system would have on the bottom line. It would probably reduce HCM’s income from claims, but I imagine that some of that loss would be offset by greater volume from renters who don’t have to dedicate a before and after photo album to their car rentals?

    (edit: replaced hyperlink with DIY URL)

  18. I believe the reality of damage detection is that daily rates have dropped to such unsustainable levels the companies need to ensure they are not losing further $’s from un-detected damage.

    Reputable companies will provide you with a Fair Wear & Tear guide with descriptions and examples of what is and isn’t fair wear. The guide usually includes a small ruler printed on the form as well as various sizes of surface area measurement. This removes any perception variance. What’s fair wear & tear to some isn’t so fair to others.

    Additionally, with minor dings, scrapes and scratches, unless you are with your rental vehicle every minute you have it hired , you can never 100% categorically state that damage didn’t occur while you had it.

    That tourist attraction you stopped at for an hour? Someone in another rental car opened their door on your car and caused a small dent and paint chip. You didn’t see it happen so that means it didn’t happen? That small wheel bump against the kerb that caused a gouged alloy that you didn’t bother checking on because it was only a small nudge? Meh, was already gouged when you rented the car and you told someone whose name you didn’t get… Yea, you’re the victim of a sting.

  19. Why does anyone trust car rental agencies? It’s like the nigerian prince scam of the travel world!
    This phenomenon isn’t just on this website you can’t have picked up a travel magazine, or read the weekly travel column of a newspaper, or just read yahoo, or MSN, and not seen or heard a story about a rental car damage scam. This phenomenon has been around for 5 plus years.

  20. No, I assume that people are reasonably cautious and protective when they are essentially “borrowing” a $20,000 piece of property.

  21. I am a frequent long term enterprise renter (I do not own a car of my own). I rent for about 2-3 months out of the year. I use enterprise exclusively. I have never really had an issue with damage, even though I totaled a vehicle once (not my fault). I gave enterprise a copy of the police report and case number. My credit card provided up to $50K in property insurance. Enterprise settled with the other drivers insurance company for the PD, and made a claim of about $3,000 in loss of use to my card issuer.
    All that and I still take a couple pictures of the car. It takes 2 minutes at most to take a photo of the back, front and sides of a car.

  22. I totally don’t understand your comments.

    First, Hertz Claim Management Corporation (HCM) provides third-party services for companies and government agencies with fleets. For example, a city could have 1,000 city vehicles and they want HCM to provide one or more of the five services that HCM provides.

    HCM offers 1) Claims Administrations, 2) Liability Management, 3) Subrogation, 4) Actuarial and 5) Risk Management & Safety

    HCM has been in business for over 25 years…leading companies and government agencies have outsourced their First and Thirdy Party Vehicle Fleet, Heavy Equipment, General Liability, Property Claims Administration, etc. to HCM. For example, Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is a client of HCM.

    It is my guess that HCM was founded because the infrastructure (i.e. people, processes, systems, etc) was in already place for their rental fleet. To maximize revenues as well as to minimize layoffs of employees in slow economies, they started up HCM 25 years ago to offer their services to public companies and governmental agencies with fleets. In other words, when a LA County MTA vehicle was involved in a crash, HCM took care of the paperwork, etc.

    This is no different than food and chemical manufacturers who have contract manufacturers operations. It is better to keep a line up and running by using it 3 shifts a day or 24/7 or etc. then shutting down the line and etc. There are several vitamins and supplements that you might be taking right now that are made by contractors not by the company whose name is on the label.

    …or companies like United Healthcare, Aetna, etc provide third-party claims management to self-funded plans of private companies, labor unions and governmental agencies.

    Your claim that HCM is only for the Hertz fleet is inaccurate as well as all of its revenues is from claims from Hertz rentals is inaccurate…I won’t be surprise if none of the revenues from HCM is from Hertz rentals because it could be likely that the costs and claims payments are through Hertz not HCM.

  23. Why on earth does Enterprise ask you where you’re taking the car, while we’re on the subject? Just rented from them recently and they wanted details about where I was going. Can kind of see both sides of this – on the one hand it’s their car, but on the other it’s none of their business given I’m paying for the gas and the contract features unlimited mileage. It’s not like anyone who’d be up to no good would tell them the truth anyway.

  24. I’ve been told you should get pics of the dash/mileage on the car when you get it – showing the same background and lighting conditions as the other photos if possible, which will help prove when you took them all. The mileage will be written on your signed contract.

  25. Everyone now carries an HD video camera and digital still camera in their pockets with modern phones. There is no excuse for not taking 30 seconds to walk around the car and film the whole thing.

  26. depends on where you are renting – crossing borders and even some states with different insurance laws can be an issue.

  27. I don’t have an iPhone but what you can do easily is email them to yourself immediately and then you have a date/time stamp on the email. There should also be geotag information imprinted in the photo’s data automatically. Sorry I couldn’t be of more help.

  28. I never claimed that HCM is exclusive to Hertz; their filing also indicates that they service other fleets as well.

    The main point (and question, really) was that Hertz has the technology to take 50+ pictures of a vehicle upon exit and entry, which they could presumably install at their major airports at the very least. While it still wouldn’t be perfect, it would go a long way towards narrowing down the time period when damage occurred and allow HCM to directly charge the party responsible with actual pictorial evidence. This is technology was demonstrated to Chris in 2011, yet nearly 4 years later, it doesn’t seem to be widely adopted by Hertz. (I don’t know if other companies are developing similar technology). Is it still under development? Or did someone in the C-suite decide that the expense of installing these systems plus intangible loyalty generated by good will in not charging customers with damage claims and loss of use fees (much harder to measure) wasn’t worthwhile considering fees generated from their existing damage claims processes? Or maybe some other reason? The annual filing doesn’t break down how much HCM brings in revenue from Hertz damage and loss of use claims versus their other activities.

    Speaking for myself as a former hi-mileage traveler/car renter and now leisure-only car renter, if I knew that Hertz had this system in place at the destination i was flying to with my family, I would be willing to pay a little more for a Hertz car instead of having my wife and kids wait in the car/hut late at night while i recorded the car inside the dimly lit parking garage armed with only the tiny flash and camera in my smartphone.

  29. Don’t forget climbing up on the door jam and taking a picture of the roof! Some guy got “dinged” for that, literally!

    For fun, I checked out my own car and it looked like the surface of the moon up there. I expect that over the years there have been chestnuts and other things falling off of trees dinging the roof of my car.

    There’s a concept of “wear and tear”. Roads are not cushioned environments. There will be minor dings and dents over the use of a car and it’s ridiculous to expect renters to then pay for each ding and dent (and loss of use) in effect making them pay for repairs that most responsible owners wouldn’t bother with.

    When I rent an apartment, I have normal wear and tear as well. Minor blemishes and scratches and carpet wear is expected. I got back my full deposit nearly every time.

  30. Hi Christopher,

    I am in a similar situation. I had rented a Porsche Boxster from a San Francisco car rental firm named Beverly Hills Rent-a-car on Oct/11 for 24 hours. I returned the car to them on Oct/12 in good shape. The same CS rep who rented the car out to me, inspected the car and confirmed everything looks good. 16 days later, on Oct/28, the claims department of the rental car firm, gave me a call informing me that the canvas top of the convertible is ripped. They estimate the damage to be close to $6000.

    Options provided by them to me:
    – Own up to this damage and pay $2500 (This should be covered by the Damage Waiver, however they claim I am responsible for this deductible)
    – Or fight the case and i will be tried for full $6000 damage (or may be more)

    I am writing to in hopes that there is a non-legal route to resolve this issue. I would rather have this resolved without having to find an attorney and fight it legally. Since I didn’t cause the damage and since the damage didn’t happen when the Porsche was in my possession, I don’t want to pay for the damage. I have pictures, copies of the agreement etc to substantiate this.

    I would really appreciate any help/guidance in this matter. Looking forward to your response. Thanks much in advance.

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