What should we do about repeat offender car rental companies?

The resolutions of our advocacy cases almost never get overturned. But, as Ian Fleming might have said, “Never say never.”

When Carol Amitin’s story about Enterprise appeared in my syndicated column, we had one of those unfortunate moments. Amitin, you’ll recall, rented a “courtesy” car from Enterprise and was accused of damaging it.

Readers of this site urged us to advocate for her. Amitin disputed the charges on her credit card and won.

Last week, I heard from her with some bad news. Enterprise was pursuing her for even more money.

“I just received another letter from Enterprise asking for $817 instead of $317,” she told me. “I was hoping that would be the resolution even though I had not heard from Enterprise at that time. With your expertise in these matters, is there anything you can do to finally resolve this situation?”

Of course, I immediately contacted Enterprise. She won the credit card dispute. Leave this customer alone, please. The case is pending.

But it raised an even bigger question: How do you deal with a repeat offender like Enterprise, with a reputation for pursuing customers even when it doesn’t have a convincing case? Can anything be done?

Turns out I’m not the only one asking the question.

“I, too, had a problem with a car I rented from Enterprise,” says Steve Depetris, a reader from Oakland, Calif. “The problem was that Enterprise did not honor the quoted rate when I dropped off the car. Getting nowhere with the people working at the Enterprise office, I, too, did a credit card dispute for $50 of the total $150 bill.”

That’s when the law of unintended consequences kicked in, he says.

“Apparently, Enterprise has a policy of blackballing any renter who initiates a credit card chargeback,” he says. “I was put on a ‘Do Not Rent’ list for Enterprise, which also included their other car rental companies, Alamo and National. I was never notified of this or even knew about it until I later attempted to rent cars from Enterprise, Alamo and National, when I was informed by the counter personnel that I was on the list, and nothing could be done about it, even though I had confirmed reservations in each case.”

In that case, there was no appeal.

“There is nothing quite like the feeling of despair that comes from holding a confirmed reservation that is not honored by the company,” he adds. “So you may want to alert your readership that, in winning the battle with Enterprise, they may well lose the war.”

How true. Fortunately, Depetris managed to eventually persuade Enterprise to reinstate him.

And then there’s this from reader Michael Smith in San Francisco. He rented a car from Enterprise under his employer’s name and got a flat tire. The bill: $270.

“I demanded proof, which resulted in copies of photographs of my injuries to the truck,” he says. “The unit number on the truck pictured was not the truck I rented.”

Even so, he says Enterprise insisted he pay the $270. His boss refused.

“Someone at Enterprise is doing this — and keeps doing this,” he says.

Actually, Enterprise insists it only pursues legitimate claims, and that its Damage Recovery Unit is not operated as a profit center. But recent cases we’ve received suggest there may be another side to this story.

No doubt about it, Enterprise is, for better or worse, a frequent topic of conversation on this site. But how do we stop these shenanigans from happening? Don’t consumers have rights?

Of course they do. But this is not like fighting for airline passenger rights, where the federal government regulates an entire industry. Car rental companies are regulated on a state-by-state basis, and companies have great lobbyists in the state legislatures and give generously to re-election funds.

That means when a piece of legislation comes before a state legislature or court, like Colorado’s precedent-setting case on loss of use, consumers essentially have no representation. Cases and legislation almost always favor the car rental company because consumers don’t have any advocates at the state level to say “that’s not right.”

That’s a shame.

I don’t know what the fix is, but maybe a good first step is to try something at the federal level. Car rental customers are harassed by false claims, extra fees and come-ons for pricey and unnecessary insurance. And don’t even get us started on the contracts, with their onerous arbitration clauses that try to keep valid claims out of court. The nerve!

They’ll never win at the state level. But at the federal level they just may have a chance.

Should car rental companies be regulated at the federal level?

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