Pricey technology puts a lot on this plate

Barbara Filigenzi spent a week on the coast of Maine last July. She picked up a rental car from the Hertz counter at the Portland Jetport, and mostly took in the beauty of midcoast Maine.

At the end of an uneventful visit, Filigenzi returned the vehicle to Hertz, and went on her merry way.

A week later, without warning, Filigenzi was socked with a big charge on her credit card. A company she had never heard of, PlatePass, charged her card $385.

How does a company you’ve never heard of get your credit card information? And how could Filigenzi have unknowingly incurred a charge so massive? It’s all in the fine print, ladies and gentlemen. And these fine print cases serve as a reminder to all of us would-be renters to keep an eye on your credit card statement, even once you’ve returned home.

PlatePass is a service installed on all Hertz rental cars, according to its website. “Every rental car is PlatePass ready. No pre-enrollment or sign-up is required. No extra paperwork is required and you do not have to stop at the Hertz counter.”

Well, that’s very convenient. But without any paperwork, how would one even know that a PlatePass is installed? In Filigenzi’s case, that’s the problem. It went unmentioned at the rental counter, and the disclosure was couched in tiny print at the back of the rental agreement — which nobody ever takes the time to read.

Filigenzi passed through a couple of toll booths near Portland, Maine, but Filigenzi paid in cash. When she saw the $385 charge on her credit card, she immediately called Hertz. “The first question they asked was whether this had anything to do with PlatePass. Apparently they know how bad the situation is, said they couldn’t do anything about it, and referred us to PlatePass customer service.”

According to the terms disclosed on its website, PlatePass is triggered when a rental vehicle drives through an electronic payment lane at a toll booth. Once engaged, the renter is charged a per day service charge, whether 1 or 50 tolls are paid, in addition to the actual posted rate of the toll. The administrative fee is capped at $24.75 per rental. The Hertz website shares one other small, lucrative detail — the renter is charged the daily fee for each day of the rental, even if no toll is paid on a given day.

Filigenzi accessed her invoice at the PlatePass website, which showed hundreds of dollars in charges for bridges and tunnels around New York City — where she hadn’t traveled at all. New York is technically within driving distance of Maine. “But there was no way they could hold us responsible as the last toll paid in New York was within 20 minutes of us returning the vehicle in Maine.”

PlatePass refunded the money to Filigenzi. In this case, the amount charged was so hefty, it was hard to miss. But what about Hertz customers whose PlatePass didn’t go haywire? Should customers be entitled to more notice about this active technology, administered by a third party?

Filigenzi thinks so. “I’m still upset with Hertz as no verbal mention was made about the transponder, the activation fee, or the daily fee that is charged, nor any choice about whether to have one in the vehicle.”

Filigenzi points out that a simple Google search about PlatePass reveals many Hertz customers who are unhappy with excessive and erroneous charges. “Most people won’t have the ‘easy out’ that we did, with no way to prove that the charges weren’t theirs.”

Indeed, in this case, the refund came easily. But how accurate is the technology, and how good is the customer service? My research revealed that PlatePass and Hertz were already co-defendants in a class-action lawsuit in which it settled plaintiffs’ claims of unwarranted fees for $11 million. Have these business partners learned anything from that experience?

We’re not sure. But as you head out with your next rental car, keep an eye on the fine print — and your credit card statement.

Are rental car companies unfairly introducing expensive technology without fair notice to consumers?

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About the Author
A writer and natural advocate, Jessica joined our consumer advocacy effort following a decade of work on behalf of air crash victims at one of the nation's largest plaintiffs' law firms. She has lived in Europe and Asia, but now calls Charleston, S.C. home.
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