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.

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“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.

16 thoughts on “Slimy new car rental tricks you need to know now

  1. My auto insurer has an app that can show your insurance card (GEICO), and I bet most of the other insurers can do that as well. So I would think as long as you have your phone, you should be able to prove you are insured (just preload the app, though it didn’t take long at all). As far as the upsell, I don’t like it either, but short of driving everywhere or paying for ride-sharing services/taxis, it is hard to avoid car rental companies entirely.

  2. I just got scammed by Hertz on my most recent trip. I was assured at the rental counter that all cars were full of fuel and should be returned full. Upon arrival at my car, I discovered the tank was only 3/4 full. I elected to deal with the problem at the end of my rental rather than trying to find a responsible Hertz representative late at night in a darkened parking garage. As you might imagine, upon return, the Hertz agent blew off my concerns and closed the transaction. I later called the Hertz 800 # who tried to tell me that I should have returned the car 3/4 full. I didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday, all that would have happened had I chosen that route would have been me being charged $9.99 per gallon for returning the car less than full, and scammed for even more money by Hertz. The telephone representative said they would send me a $25 discount certificate for my trouble, which I have yet to receive.

  3. You forgot the #1 Car Rental Scam Avoidance Trick:

    Read The Statement of Charges BEFORE You Leave the Lot! (And read your receipt after drop-off.)

    If you don’t have time to go over every eye-straining word of the contract, at LEAST do this much. It’s not hard to find, it’s not hard to read, and can prevent no end of grief.

    I’d say over half of the car rental cases on this site could be prevented if consumers would take this one 30-second step, including three cases from this article alone.

  4. You forgot the claim they get weeks later that they damaged the car and have to pay thousands of dollars for scratches they never caused.

  5. Don’t forget the “oh there’s a ding, but if you pay us $490 right now, we won’t be forced to collect from you later.”

    I made a 20-something year old idiot working one of these scams cry. She tried the “oh, there’s a scratch…” game, so I took her picture and threatened to put it on Facebook and Twitter with a call out to all the news stations and her rental agency’s parent company about how she had no morals, propositioned me for sex*, and she was trying to rip me off. Go team me.

    *So I made that part up but the entire thing was a scam, so shaming these people is what we consumers must do these days.

    1. Alt – Fabulous counter kung fu. The part I especially like is that you made her personally responsible for trying to use her corporate fraudster training on you. I’m still in favor of stealth ‘consumer body cams’ to record all interactions with travel vendors, who tend to, you know, outright lie frequently.

    2. Shaming a clerk does nothing, except hurting her personally, even perhaps losing her job. It may be the only job they can get. And in the long run, it’s corporate that’s pushing this, not some low level employee.

      I know you think you scored, but implying your going to ruin someone’s life with sex charges is just….I don’t even know what to say. Threats can also be misdemeanor or felony chargeable.

      1. No threats were given, darling. But I sure as hell wasn’t going to pay that fake damage claim…and I didn’t.

    3. ” how she had no morals, including propositioning I pay her $490 for sex”

      She has no morals yet you want to slander her with false accusations! That’s choice. I don’t endorse this behavior and there’s no need to stoop lower than them. A video of the car is plenty of evidence needed to show them you aren’t playing around.

      1. I don’t have time to play ring-around-the-corporate-doofus to get satisfaction from a false damage claim. (Read some of the cases on here to see how long they get dragged out)

        Shaming the front man (or woman) does work. Just look at the videos of AA and United.

        1. Shaming the “front man” (aka low front line employee) with false accusations is just as deplorable if not worse, and doesn’t make you right just because you got your way. It makes you a bully.

          1. Low level employee was claiming to be the “manager” and that her “authority” to bill me was correct. I took care of it. And if that makes me a bully so I wouldn’t have to be another case on here of the “just under the deductible scam” so be it.

  6. There is something to be said for car rental agencies that still print out a paper agreement for the renter to sign. The renter can look over the details. Hertz typically has everything on a tiny screen now with the details flashing by. They will print out the terms after signing on a signature pad. I have had one time when the pad was broken and they had me sign the foldout agreement.

    My last rental (not with Hertz) the agent kept on trying to up-sell to a larger car, but at least was clear on the extra cost. I didn’t budge since I could live with a smaller car, and she just gave it to us at the same cost.

  7. The one bit of insurance that agents always try to sell me is the one that covers the deductible and ‘loss of use’ charges. Sure, my insurance will cover the damage repair (minus my deductible), but then the rental agency will claim hundreds of dollars for “loss of use” when the rental car is in the repair shop for a week or two. Sometimes I do pay for that coverage (depending on where I am and how much I’m driving the car), but I’m fully aware of it when I do.

    I do my best to make sure I have plenty of time to rent the car and return it, so I can read through all the paperwork.

    Sometimes the full tank fuel charge saves money, sometimes it doesn’t. It helps to have an app or someone you can contact at your location to check the local fuel rates before you arrive, so you can decide if the full tank is worthwhile or not. Sometimes, even if the ‘full tank’ charge is just a few cents more, I might still buy it so I don’t have to be bothered when filling up before returning the car. But you need the information so you can make the choice.

  8. I recently checked with my auto insurance company about coverage for rental cars. They said my wife and I are covered because we have collision and comprehensive insurance on our own cars. If we just had liability insurance, the car that was rented would not be covered.

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