Is there a car rental toll conspiracy?

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By Christopher Elliott

Maybe I got it wrong when I concluded that car rental companies are just trying to help customers by offering “optional” toll payment services with their cars.

It could potentially be a widespread conspiracy involving not just the auto rental companies and third-party electronic billing services but also local toll road authorities. All parties stand to gain from tourists unknowingly driving down poorly-marked turnpikes.

This theory was proposed by Shira Newman, a property manager from Portland, Ore., when I discussed my own toll road issues. I ended up with $27.10 in charges for a brief trip to the airport.

“I had a similar thing happen to me about a year ago when I took my family to Denver,” she told me. “Apparently, they have toll roads there but do not disclose them — there is basically one way to go out of the Denver airport, but no one really says anything about it.”

A disclosure problem

Newman is referring to E-470, which is a convenient way to get from Denver International Airport to the suburbs, but not the only way. And hers isn’t the first complaint I’ve received about its lack of disclosure. (Remember Dave Medin, the reader from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in my last report — he was caught by E-470, too.)

“So we paid the toll out of the airport and back to the airport — we were there for six days, but used it twice, to and from the airport,” says Newman. “But I, like you, was apparently charged their toll charge for each day that I rented the car.”

“It is a scam, I believe,” she adds.

Yes, but is it a conspiracy? You would have to prove that the practice went far beyond one or two locations adding pricey transponders with little or no disclosure. We’d need pictures of car rental officials meeting toll road executives in a local Chinese restaurant. These kinds of deals often occur in Chinese restaurants for some reason.

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And you’d need to show me the checks or transaction records proving the car rental managers paid officials to remove the E-470s roadsigns.

As much as I love investigative journalism, I don’t think I’m going to find that smoking gun. (Besides, I’m a consumer advocate. Investigative reporters get bigger paychecks and they have big employers that protect them from litigious readers.)

But still, it’s worth noting that many others feel the same way Newman does. I think they’re onto something.

The toll truth

Why? First, there’s absolutely no denying that these transponder or plate-registration services are a big, highly profitable business. Car rental companies don’t have to charge you for every day you “use” these services. They could bill you for the tolls and add a modest surcharge to cover their expenses. (Here’s our ultimate guide to renting a car.)

Instead, they start the meter when you blow through the first toll booth, and they keep it running for the rest of your rental. Some might say that’s unethical.

Secondly, I have spent the better part of the last year driving around the country. I can confirm that some toll roads are not clearly marked. And that the poor signage only helps the people who operate the roads.

I wouldn’t mind this as much if it were limited to Denver, but toll roads are appearing everywhere. In some cases, the toll roads were once free, which is to say they were funded by your tax dollars. I find that highly annoying. (Don’t look now, but there’s a good chance there’s a toll road or two coming soon to your neighborhood.)

Revenue opportunity

Put it all together, and you have what may be the single biggest ancillary revenue opportunity for the car rental industry in a generation.

Oh, and did I mention there’s no way to appeal these charges? Not for me, and not for Newman.

“About a month after getting back home, there was this charge on my card, and I tried to dispute it,” she said. “But American Express wouldn’t let me.”

If this doesn’t make you wish for some kind of federal oversight, I don’t know what will. Who needs to be reined in? Is it the toll authorities, the third-party companies offering these profitable services, or the car rental companies?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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