Slimy new car rental tricks you need to know now

Does anyone not have a car rental horror story like Dave Dzurick’s?

When Dzurick, a project manager from Tucson, Ariz., rented a car from Hertz in Milwaukee recently, a representative asked him if he wanted an upgrade. No mention of the cost.

“Sure,” he said. A quick signature, and the employee pressed the keys to a Hyundai Elantra into his hand.

Later, long after he returned the sedan, he reviewed the bill: Hertz had added $162 to his final invoice. And with his signature, he’d agreed to pay it.

In the consumer advocacy world, that’s called the “sign here” scam. It’s when a representative implies there’s no charge for a product or service, but the fine print says otherwise. Your thoughtless signature seals the deal.

The car rental tactic isn’t new. It’s been happening for years. What is new is the way it, and a variety of other questionable car rental tactics, are being practiced today. In an industry where profit margins are razor-thin, these tricks are being performed much more boldly, and when customers balk, they’re told to take it or leave it.

Hertz’s records show Dzurick reserved and prepaid for an economy car through Priceline and he upgraded to a midsize car for an additional $11 per day at the rental counter.

“All optional services or upgrades offered by Hertz are discussed with customers prior to leaving the rental counter,” says Hertz spokeswoman Anna Bootenhoff. “If a customer elects to purchase optional services or upgrade to a new vehicle class, the additional charges are explained and the rental agreement will reflect the added fees. By signing the rental agreement, the customer is accepting the contract.”

Lesson learned? Read before you sign.

But wait! There’s more:

The insurance trick
You know the one where the car rental employee tries to upsell you on a pricey insurance policy that you may or may not need (and may or may not cover you). But car rental companies are trying a new tactic to get you to buy: They’re refusing to rent the car if you don’t buy their insurance. They’re doing you a favor; you don’t want to give them your business.

“Many people don’t realize that if they own a car, their car insurance may already cover them if they are in the rental,” says Jason Turchin, a Miami attorney who specializes in accident cases. “I suggest they check with their car insurance company before renting a car to confirm that they are covered. One simple phone call to their insurance company could save them a lot of money.”

Shaming the customer
Upselling, or trying to persuade a customer to buy an expensive option like fuel or navigation systems, is no longer enough for some car rental companies. Consider what happened to Kendal Perez, who works for a coupon website in Windsor, Colo., when she rented a car in Kauai. The company offered a prepaid fuel option.

“A representative asserted that her company’s rate was 10% less than anywhere on the island,” she remembers. “When I declined, she made a face at me like I was stupid for doing so.” Turns out she wasn’t — she turned down the offer and found less expensive fuel.

The reverse “we’re out of cars” maneuver
For years, savvy consumers have played a little game of car rental roulette with a company: Reserve the smallest car, betting that the company will run out of the compact models, which should force the rental firm to offer a free upgrade. Now, car rental companies are playing the same game with us, apparently. That’s what happened to Steve Silberberg, an outdoor guide based in Hull, Mass.

First, the rental agency lists a sedan at an attractive price with an online travel agency. “But when you get there, they don’t have that class of vehicle,” he says. “They will then offer you a lesser vehicle for the same price — so you’re paying the same for less — or they will upgrade you for a fee.”

Yet the industry practice is to always upgrade you into the next class of vehicle. A polite reminder of that may be enough to yield a better set of wheels.

Smart drivers aren’t tolerating it. When Marilyn Leland rented a car from Budget at Chicago’s O’Hare airport recently, didn’t ask for an upgrade or the fuel purchase option, and she didn’t recall signing a contract agreeing to them. Yet Budget gave her a bigger car, which included its pricey fuel purchase plan.

“I was in a hurry to get to my flight when I returned the car and I didn’t notice until later that I had charges that were more than what my reservation statement quoted,” recalls Leland, a former executive for a trade association who lives in Anchorage, Alaska.

She phoned Budget and disputed both charges, furnishing it with fuel receipts that confirm she filled the tank before returning the vehicle and a reservation that showed she only agreed to a compact car. Budget refunded both charges.

It shouldn’t be that difficult, but in this age of slimy car rental tactics, you better brace for a flight.

SIDEBAR: How to fight car rental tactics
Build a profile.
Sign up for a car rental company’s frequent-renter program, like Hertz #1 Club Gold, which allows you to state your rental preferences before you arrive. That limits a car rental company’s ability to play upgrade, downgrade and option games.

Use the kiosk.
Automated check-in kiosks limit the amount of interaction with a pushy salesperson. But pay close attention to what you’re agreeing to on the screen and never, ever hurry through the options, even if you’re in a hurry. One wrong click and you could be paying a lot more for your wheels.

Carry insurance proof.
With all the insurance games that are being played these days, you need to carry a copy of your car insurance or evidence of insurance through your travel insurance policy or credit card. If you don’t, a representative could hassle you — or even deny you the keys to a car.

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