Was I scammed by my car rental company?

That's not my crack / Photo by andres musta - Flickr
Question: I recently rented a car from Thrifty in Toronto for two weeks. I travel more than 26 weeks a year and rent lots of cars, but this is the first time I have been scammed by a rental car company.

Last month they sent me a bill for $312 for a pebble in the windshield. I know nothing occurred while I had the car, otherwise, I would be more than willing to pay for any damage. When I received the letter, I immediately called them, letting them know that I didn’t cause any damage, and was led to believe that I wouldn’t have to pay for this damage that I didn’t cause.

This week I received a “second notice” bill asking for the cost of the damage. I have no idea what to do. I left another message on their voice mail, but haven’t heard anything back.

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There’s something odd about the notice. It lists the date of loss a month after my rental. Can you help? — Mark Spritzler, Long Beach, Calif.

Answer: Windshield damage from a pebble isn’t always visible when you return a vehicle, and a car rental company will replace the entire windshield after the crack begins to spread. So it’s possible that you didn’t notice the chip when you brought the car back to Thrifty.

I’m told that windshields are the most common damage to a car rental and, I would add, the most contentious. Why? Because, as your case shows, the problem isn’t always obvious when you bring the vehicle back.

You could have easily prevented a frivolous damage claim by taking “before” and “after” pictures of your car, and simply sending those to Thrifty when it mailed you its initial claim.

I understand why you’d want to call Thrifty immediately after receiving its claim. But a phone representative’s assurances are worthless, particularly a vague promise that you shouldn’t have to pay for something you’re not responsible for. I mean, that’s obviously true, but it in no way absolves you of Thrifty’s claim.

Instead, a short, polite email to Thrifty might have yielded a different response. I list all of the executives on my customer service wiki, On Your Side.

I probably wouldn’t have taken your case, except for one detail you mentioned at the end of your note. The dates on the claim were wrong. To me, that suggests Thrifty sent the bill to the wrong customer.

I contacted Thrifty on your behalf. It apologized for sending you a claim with the wrong date. A representative admitted the “date logged for this damage was keyed inaccurately, resulting in the confusion on the date.”

Although Thrifty says it still believes you are responsible for the damage, it has closed your claim.

42 thoughts on “Was I scammed by my car rental company?

  1. I couldn’t vote. Each case is different.  However, as a rule, I would say that a car company has until the close of the subsequent business day to document damage.  After that, the car company would need to show the reasonableness of any delay as part of its prima facie case.

    My thinking is that if you don’t discovery damage immediately, how do you know which renter caused it.

  2. I think the damage should be noted immediately. However, I know that several times I’ve rented a car and returned it after hours, so immediately isn’t always an option. Our local rental company lets you park the car in the lot and drop the keys in a box outside the office. Thankfully we haven’t had problems.

    I definitely say they have to notify you no later than  the next renter. Once the car is in someone else’s possession, it becomes hard to prove who’s at fault unless it’s noted before the new renter takes the car.

    1. After reading Chris’s column for a while, I no longer return rental cars after hours. It’s just too easy for damage to occur while the car is technically in my possession. I will rent from a different location or plan to keep the car until the next morning if necessary. It’s too bad we have to be so vigilant and mistrustful, but even though most car rental situations are uneventful, unfortunately that’s not always the case.

      1. Here in Sydney AU there is a local discount car rental place that no longer allows returns after hours due to too many arguments and misunderstandings related to damage.  They make the argument that they can provide the best customer service by doing a full inspection on return, and you don’t leave until you have a receipt listing no damages (or itemizing whatever damages you do have to pay for).

        This same company has only a $300 excess/deductable, even if you crash the car, with no extra insurance fees.  Yet they have lowest rates around compared to the “full service” chains which are more than twice as expensive, and usually have a deductable of more than $2000, unless you pay for extra insurance.  Funny how these things work…

  3. Personally I think the rental car company should have to document damage when they regain possession of the vehicle and prior to them moving it. If I’m going to be held responsible for any damage I don’t find during my walk around and they haven’t documented already, the same should apply at turn in. Unfortunately, I have been told by people
    who work on rental lots that their drivers will ding cars and then turn it in
    as the responsibility of the prior driver. If the rental car company had to
    document any damage prior to moving the vehicle, it eliminates this loop hole.

  4. You know it continues to trouble me that the customers are always the one’s that have to disprove allegations regarding damage to rental cars. I appreciate your advice about taking pictures, etc., but really the thing to do is to stand up to these deceptive if not illegal and fraudulent claims from the rental car companies. If you did not cause the damage then you are not legally required to pay for it (unless of course you agree to it). If every one that got one of these fake bills, and I am not saying that is the fact in the instant case, sued the company, then this would quickly stop as it would be too expensive for the car rental companies to pursue this seeming easy source of fraudulent income. If you did cause the damage then obviously you should pay up and not try and defraud the rental car company.

    1.  “If you did cause the damage then obviously you should pay up and not try and defraud the rental car company.”
      Trouble is, many people wouldn’t. Of course, many others are honest and would, but rental companies don’t want to take that chance, and I don’t blame them.

  5. “Although Thrifty says it still believes you are responsible for the damage, it has closed your claim.”

    Huh?  Legally speaking, what the bleep is Thrifty saying here? 

    If you believe the OP is responsible for the damage, step up and prove it, and stick to your guns, Thrifty! 

    If, on the other hand, you are closing the claim, that indicates that you CAN’T establish that the OP is responsible for the damage–which leads to the logical question, “so why did you bill him for it in the first place, if you can’t prove it?” 

    Businesses who get caught with their pants down (so to speak) often pull this stunt: they insist that their bogus claim against a customer is still valid, but they drop the claim at the same time.  This is their oh-so-transparent way of backing off before they get into full-blown legal trouble, while still insisting that they didn’t do anything to get into that trouble.  But logically you can’t have it both ways!

    In the process, they badmouth the customer to the bitter end–and as a customer who’s been in this position before, I find it extremely offensive. 

    Thrifty, you don’t fool anybody.  Chris caught you up as you were in the process of cheating a former customer.  Period.

    1. Or you could take it as … we made a mistake on the date and instead of getting into a PR nightmare of a pissing match in the media over a $312 claim, we’ll walk away because said pissing match would cost us more than $312 to fix.

      Having said that, I still don’t think that they should charge him if it was found after turn in.

    2. Is there any way to know whether they turned around and assessed the charge to the next poor sap who rented that car?

      The best argument that other person would have against the claim of damage is the company’s own statement that they still believe this person is responsible…

  6. I sympathize with this customer. The name of the game in the car rental industry is called; tell the customer what they want to hear. Promise the customer what ever you think will make the sale. I have been on both sides of this issue. I previously worked as a manager in the car rental industry. I am also a renter. The only time a customer should be billed after a sale is complete is when the rental company receives a ticket for the previous rental. Most owners and workers of these companies are professional liars.
    If they can’t take your money in one way they will find another way to get your money. Best wishes, I hope it works out for you.

  7. We keyed the data wrong so we have no idea when it happened but you are still responsible but since we are an incompetent bunch and the judge would toss the case on us, we decided that you will not pay.

    That is essentially what they said.

    If the op travels so much why had he never heard of photographs?

  8. Three weeks is far too long to wait to contact a customer about “damage”. And to follow it up with, “Oh, we put in the wrong date.”

    This is tantamount to a, oh, let’s call them a collection agency, calling me once about a $4000 phone bill we owed when we lived at our address in Ohio (and we were still there) only it was, according to them, from when we lived there four years previous.  When I told them it was our current address and had only lived there a year (with the very phone number they said we owed all this money on), having moved there from Mississippi and they responded with, “Oh, well this Ohio Bell bill is for your address from four years ago in Mississippi.”  All I could say to that was, “Really?  Ohio Bell services Mississippi?”  They hung up on me but not before I got their information and turned them over to the Attorney General.

    Bottom feeders, all of them.

    Auto rental agencies are playing a numbers game, just like these bottom feeding collection agencies.  They’ll send out 100 baited lines in the hopes just 10% of them snag a fish.

    1. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall, listening to your conversation with these losers… it must have been sweet.  🙂

  9. I use my iPhone to video the car at pickup and return. Recently in PSP we went to inspect the car at pickup and it had several items to note. I asked for a sheet to note the damage and the guy at Budget just signed a blank one and gave it to us. Ok… In Lihue, Enterprise was great. Awesome customer service and the rep walked out to the car with us and made note on her rental form of every ding and scratch. Very much impressed. Fortunately, no issues with both rentals.

  10. I don’t know how they can accurately assign damages to the correct driver if it’s not logged when the car is turned in. I would guess any time a nearly invisible pit turns into a crack somebody gets stuck with damages they really didn’t cause. But I’ve gotten pits and cracks in my windshields over the years when I didn’t hear a rock hit, so I think it’s impossible for the OP to be100% certain it didn’t happen while he was driving

    1. Happens to my car all the time, and I end up with cracks if I don’t catch the dings in time to have them filled.  Happened to my last rental car, too.  Didn’t see a chip when we signed the paperwork, but one afternoon there was a crack, originating from a chip smack in the middle of the passenger side window.  Didn’t see the original chip until the crack started.  Agree with your post – somebody’s going to get stuck.  We took responsibility – chip didn’t show on photos we took, so guess it happened on our watch.

      Date of loss a month after the rental?  Total BS. 

  11. General rulle of thumb would be when the car is returned. Something like ripping out the glovebox might not show up until a future renter uses the car. There is no dealing fairly with anybody in the travel supplying companies.

  12. Sorry, once the rental car company takes possession of the car it’s their responsibility. If no damage is noted at that point they assume all responsibility. ANYTHING could happen from the time it changes hands to the time the notice is sent. Car rental companies count on the fact that most people will just roll over and pay the inflated claim. 

    I’m sure that $300 claim included some lost revenue days in their as well for something that takes, what, 60 minutes to fix. 

  13. I don’t trust car rental companies one bit. They should look over the car when you bring back and sign off at that time. It’s not fair to go back and try to hold you responsible when the car is  no longer in your care. I have read other posts about Thrifty and would never rent from them. I know they are about to be purchased by another rental company and when that happens I will never rent from that company eitehr.

  14. I used to be a transporter (shuffle rental cars) for Hertz.

    All should be settled at the time of the return, no “backsies”, since there is ample time to walk around and inspect the car and sign it off.

    BUT…if the renter needs to get the shuttle to get to the airport and they bolt, then who knows what could happen to their bill and damages.

    Some of the transporters do some of the damage and should never have been allowed to drive.

    1. A few weeks ago I was at Avis returning my car when an employee, I am assuming a transporter, got into the car at the front of the line and as he was driving it towards the car wash area side swiped another Avis car that had just been returned.  The driver kept going.  I pointed it out to the person checking me out and he said he would look into it.  I can’t help but wonder if the people who returned both of those cars got bills for damages.

  15. I voted for one week, with the caveat that once the car is re-rented, the window for claims closes.  Here’s what I could see happening.  Customer A rents car and returns with no damage.  Customer B rents car and returns with minor damage (ding, windshield chip, etc.).  Customer B slips the agent an Andrew Jackson to “miss” the damage. But the agent doesn’t want to take the chance that Customer C will spot the damage, so he pulls the rental record and blames it on Customer A.

  16. If car rental companies are allowed to assess damage after check in…can I report existing damage after check out?

  17. If the damage isn’t visible on return, but magically shows up later, how do they know it wasn’t there when the previous renter returned it?  Do we really have to bring our own glass expert along with our mechanic (given stories of rental companies trying to charge for bad clutches etc that failed a few miles after renting) when checking out a rental car?  It’s ridiculous.

    Yes, if you cause clearly identifiable damage that can be easily identified both as not being there on checkout, and being there on checkin, you should pay, but if not it just has to be part of the general cost of maintaining wear and tear of the business.

    And a windshield doesn’t have to cost $300 — the dirty secret there is that glass places actually charge the insurance companies *more* than if you just pay directly (I paid $125 for a brand new OEM windshield for my Civic, which has a very large one).  That’s how the “we’ll refund your deductible” places make it work; it’s a kickback that borders on insurance fraud in my mind…

    1. I have a large deductible on my car.  I get to pay cash for about one windshield a year, as this make/model has thin glass that pits easily and cracks readily.  Last time I got quotes from all around the Omaha metro area, the best price was around $375, with the defroster strip along the bottom edge of the windshield.

  18. I was pleasantly suprised by my last car rental (From Enterprise @ Skyharbor Airport in Phoenix Az).   The check out agent had a small 5×7 clear plastic card with various markings which clearly showed what is and what is NOT considered damage.  i.e.  A scratch bigger than this circle is damage,  or a dent bigger than this smaller circle is damage etc.  I thought this was really cool.  Of course I worried that I didn’t have a photocopy of that card so it would end up being ignored at the end of the rental, but still seems like a good start.

  19. Car rental scams are becoming out of control.  I’ve been driving since 1970 in my own vehicles and hundreds of rental cars.  I have never heard of an invisible windshield crack becoming a future problem, and certainly have never experienced it. 

    Billing a customer’s credit card after the fact is a very bad business practice.  I realize it’s lucrative to the rental company but it borders on fraud.  If we don’t set some limits on these guys, the practice of billing customers for nearly anything will escalate.  There is no accountability at all, the customer is forced to initiate a very annoying system to do anything about it and it goes on forever, telling your story over and over to a bunch of people who can’t or won’t try to understand, and have no interest in helping you.

    I know that I’ve been billed for bits over the years, who is going to dispute a charge of $46 two months after the rental?  I don’t have that kind of time.

  20. Although I feel it should be listed upon return, in some cases that isn’t possible, and you are just dropping the car for them to collect the next morning.  So I say 24 hours, so any photos, disputes, etc are handled immediately – no nonsense.

    1. If I am dropping my car off and the agent hands me my paperwork to leave, then as far as I am concerned I am off the hook.  We only rent with Hertz and have Hertz Gold.  Last fall in DEN I watched the guy who was moving the cars open the driver’s door on the car in front of me and it hit the car next to it.  That new dent shouldn’t be the former driver’s responsiblility, and usually isn’t with Hertz.

  21. someone has to pay.

    So the question is, do you do it or someone else.

    Even a photo doesn’t mean much, unless it was of the windscreen at the depot when you handed it back.

    People try & get away with all sorts of damage & try & hide it, in lots of weird ways.

    Have seen someone try & cover slight damage up with mud, which couldn’t be seen until car was washed, which doesn’t always happen immiedately car is returned, especially if they are busy.

  22. I’m renting a car later this week, but this time I’m taking photos before and after. I always go over the car carefully noting any existing marks or damage – inside and out. Have never had a problem with car rentals, but in todays difficult economy, I’m not taking a chance. I’ll be sure to pay close attention the all the windows, now! Thanks for a heads up!

  23. While we’re all taking pictures of the defects found before and the post-rental photos to show no additional problems, don’t forget to check that the spare tire is there, and photograph it as well at the end.

  24. FWIW, I once had a rental car from Thrifty and, first day driving it, a rock it the windshield and cracked it. I first called the holder of my auto insurance, then Thrifty. I also took a couple photos of the damage. All I needed to do was fill out a one-page damage claim form when I turned in the car. My auto insurance agent said I was covered (by them) for the repair, but Thrifty could charge me up to $100 for the car being out of service while it was being repaired. When all was said and done, everyone was honest, cooperative, and friendly, and Thrifty did charge me an “out of service” charge…of $25.  I can’t deny the damage occurred…I was in the car when the rock hit it.  That experience left we with a very good feeling about Thrifty (out of Hartford, CT’s Bradley airport, at least) and I would not hesitate to rent from them again.

    1. If they could not have rented 100% of the cars the ‘out of service charge’ is just as much a scam as the $300 bil to the OP.

      You could have called your insurance company – they could have gotten one of those rolling car windshield companies there THAT day to fix the windshield parked wherever you were –  You would have then returned the car and Thrifty would have been none the wiser and you’d be $25 richer now.  

      Cie la Vie –

  25. I rented a car over the Christmas holiday in South Dakota.  I drove very
    little after arriving in a small town 3 hours from the airport.  I had
    rented through Priceline and purchased the insurance offered though
    Priceline..although they say they only offer the service for Berkely
    Travel.  I did not have any incidents to my knowledge and imagine my
    surprise when I got a bill from the Hertz telling me the car was damaged
    when returned.  I did not have an agent inspect the car when it was
    returned—Bad mistake.  The bill was for a front fender, rear view
    mirror, door damage, door handle damage, undercarriage in a wheel well
    damage, tire damage, headlight damage and pictures of wires torn under
    the hood.  This on a car that I had only basically driven to and from
    the airport, parked in a garage at night, and didn’t hit anyone or
    anything.  The rental insurance I purchased through Priceline has told
    me they won’t cover it because “there is no indication that any damages
    were reported or discovered upon returning the vehicle to the rental car
    company.”  I’m at a loss of what to due other than go to my normal car
    insurance company and have my rates go up, pay the bill myself–$1000
    over my deductible, or fight an ongoing battle.  HELP.  This is my first
    experience with anything like this.

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