Are car rental companies overbilling customers for toll violations?

This should come as absolutely no surprise. The fee-happy car rental industry has apparently figured out a way of profiting from customers who blow through an electronic tool booth without paying.

That’s the conclusion of a recent blog post by my MSNBC colleague Bob Sullivan.

Advantage Rent A Car customers who accidentally drive through electronic toll booths on roads like the new Texas Highway 121, which has no human toll collectors, without the proper equipment can expect to eventually receive a bill stating that they owe the state 60 cents – and $5 to a company named Violation Management Services. At Avis, drivers who do the same can be billed $25 for each transgression, in addition to the toll charge.

Sullivan says an increase in unpaid tolls is adding to the already complicated problem of citation and violation collections for rental car firms. Many are turning to third-party firms for help. Those firms, in turn, also tack on sometimes hefty fees.

Violations Management Services, a third-party firm that helps rental car companies track down toll evaders and other violators, suggest violation collections can be profitable. The company indicates on its Web site that it can turn “a costly customer service headache into a profitable customer service solution.”

A check of the company’s Web site this morning suggests that wording has been changed. It now reads:

At VMS we are dedicated to providing the highest quality service available, allowing us to turn your cost center into a self-sustaining component of your business.

Oh, boy. Looks like they saw this one coming.

How to avoid these fees? Sullivan suggests paying a toll violation immediately after it happens in order to avoid a hefty collection fee. But he overlooks one obvious recommendation: don’t use a toll road unless you have the means to pay.

It’s disingenuous of car rental companies to invest in toll collections systems without also offering customers a way to pay for a toll road. Seems to me that needs to be fixed.

Until then, avoid a toll road in your rental car.