Ridiculous or not? Just ignore those dings and dents – your bill is in the mail

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By Christopher Elliott

With all the recent stories about questionable damage claims on rental cars, it’s no surprise that motorists like Mike Weaver would insist on inspecting his vehicle before renting it. Or that he expects to note every ding and dent before he drives away.

If you’re not familiar with what some call the ding-and-dent scam, here’s a primer: You rent a car, and for whatever reason, pre-existing damage isn’t recorded in your contract. Maybe it’s a dark parking garage. Maybe you just don’t see it.

When you return the car, an associate gives it a thorough once-over, noting a scratch here, a nick there. You get a bill for just short of $500, which is the normal deductible on your car insurance. That way, the car rental company doesn’t have to deal with your nosy insurance company.

Pretty clever, huh?

Not nearly as clever as what Weaver says happened to him when he tried to rent from Enterprise in Citrus Heights, Calif., recently.

Lack of industry standards raises concerns

“When I pointed out damage to the car on the initial walk-around, the rep refused to circle any damage on the rental form,” says Weaver. “The rep said the only damage that concerned them was golf-ball size dents or larger. So something smaller than a golf ball that breaks the windshield, you’re not worried about?”

Weaver was so worried that Enterprise would charge him for the damage that he abandoned the rental transaction and took his business to another agency.

I asked Enterprise about Weaver’s case, and although it responded to my query immediately, it hasn’t answered my question about its damage policy yet. So I turned to the American Car Rental Association, the trade organization for the car rental industry, for help.

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“There really is not a standard that every company follows as it relates to pre-existing damage,” says Bob Barton, the organization’s president. “Every company, however, does go through an inspection of the vehicle with the customer prior to departure and affords the customer the opportunity to point out any pre-existing damage that the rental agent has not identified.”

The importance of photo documentation

I can understand why a car rental company might be hesitant to record any prior damage. The forms that it uses are often small and don’t allow for a precise notations to be made. Any time I’ve pointed out a problem on my vehicle, it’s been with a rough “X” or checkmark. If, as a customer, I can use that sketch to get me off the hook for damages that I may be responsible for, then of course a car rental company would balk at using it.

The solution: Take pictures of your car, pre- and post-rental. In 2009, Hertz announced it would begin deploying such a system. I have asked the car rental company for details of its program on a regular basis since then. Unfortunately, despite promises of additional information, nothing has materialized. My last request went unanswered. I’m beginning to doubt the system exists. If that’s true, it would be a shame.

In the meantime, the only way to ensure you won’t get dinged for damage you didn’t cause is to either buy the car rental company’s overpriced and highly-profitable insurance, which can double the cost of your rental, or to take your own pictures. I would recommend snapping a few images with your cell phone. Upload them to Google or Flickr, and keeping them for at least six months after your rental.

Richard Takata wishes he had. He recently rented a car from Avis in Anchorage.

Rental process transparency

“I was told by an Avis representative that we were to do the pre-inspection of the vehicle. If we saw any damage larger than a golf ball that were to come back to the counter and let them know,” he says. (Related: Am I responsible for damage under my rental car?)

He checked the car, which was parked in a dark garage, and couldn’t see any damage. When he returned the vehicle, he brought the keys back to the counter. He asked the representative if she wanted to check the car, but was told he was “good to go,” he says.

“We received a damage claim letter from Avis saying we were responsible for a fist-size dent on the rear passenger-side door in the well area beneath the door handle,” he says. They charged $2,013 for the dent, which he passed along to his car insurance company. (Here’s what you need to know before renting your next vehicle.)

But there’s so much about the claim that makes no sense to him. From the dimly-lit garage, which made a through inspection difficult, to the directions to ignore the minor damage. Then to the likely lag time between the key return and when the car would have been inspected. It just doesn’t add up.

“Definitely a lesson learned,” he says. “I will never rent from Avis again.”

Avis says Takata’s claim was handled by the book. (Here’s the final outcome, courtesy of the BBB.)

Hertz denied that its digital inspection system is bogus

Update (8/17): Hertz sent me a note to deny its digital inspection system is bogus:

Hertz has been using digital inspections at its Newark and Philadelphia airport locations. The program has proven successful and we’re now evaluating rolling the system out to additional airports, with the next airport slated to receive the technology being Atlanta Hartsfield.

The system takes 40 pictures of a rental car, to give a 360-view of the car, at time of rental and return.

Customers are receptive to the detailed level of inspections the photos provide and both customers and Hertz are appreciative of the clarity the photos provide around damage claims.

Additionally, since our initial pilot, we’ve continued to test the technology advancements and are able to harness the system for other customer service issues, such as identifying lost and found items for customers.

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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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