A $481 bill for damage I didn’t do?

Question: I’m trying to resolve an issue with Alamo and have not been able to communicate directly with anyone at the claims department. Now they’re threatening collections and legal action. I’m in the process of buying a house and can’t afford a ding on my credit rating.

Here’s what happened. I rented a car from Alamo in San Francisco for three days recently. It was parked most of that time and the vehicle was definitely not damaged during my rental.

When I arrived in San Francisco, I checked in at the rental Alamo rental desk. I was directed to select any of the cars in a certain row in the dimly lighted, multi-level parking lot. There was no attendant to assist me. The keys were in the car. I selected the only Toyota.

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I walked around the car for a visual inspection, noticed that it was slightly dirty in front, but I saw no dents or dings. I considered having them run it through the car wash again, but I had an appointment to get to.

I drove the car 81 miles during the weekend rental period. I parked carefully, pulling in facing a wall or building. No one could have impacted the car from the front during the time it was parked. When I drove it, I didn’t run over or hit anything.

When I returned it to the airport, the agent walked toward the car from the front and said to me as he approached, “What did you hit with the car?” I thought he was joking. He pointed out what appeared to be a crack in the lower portion of the front grill. I didn’t see it right away — I had to get down low to view it. It would have been easily missed in the parking garage where I picked it up.

I disputed the damage on the spot, telling him I didn’t hit a thing and that this damage had to have been pre-existing. But I received a letter from Alamo’s damage recovery unit for $481. Can you help? — Mary Dampier, Coronado, Calif.

Answer: Alamo should have given you the keys to a clean car and offered to inspect it before you left the airport. But you could have also prevented this with a few easy steps.

Always take a picture of your rental car with a cellphone or digital camera. If possible, ask an employee to walk around the vehicle, noting even minor damage. If no one is available, then make notation of the damage and ask an employee to acknowledge the car’s condition before you leave.

I reviewed the correspondence with Alamo and the photos of the car you were alleged to have damaged. I posted the pictures, along with the letters, on my website and asked readers for their feedback. They noted several problems with your rental, including the amount of the damage claim (which was suspiciously close to your $500 insurance deductible) and evidence that the damage it showed you in the photographs weren’t from your vehicle.

Although Alamo’s parent company, Enterprise, insists that damage claims such as yours are not a moneymaking scheme, stories like yours do make customers wonder. If Alamo was really concerned about the state of its cars, it would vigilantly photograph the vehicles before every rental and conduct a thorough inspection — not wait until the end to point out every little ding, dent and scratch.

I contacted Alamo on your behalf. It dropped its claim.

13 thoughts on “A $481 bill for damage I didn’t do?

  1. Until car companies take reasonably strong measures (like those Chris proposes) to provide ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ evidence to establish a -specific renter- caused the damage, I’ll vote “money-making scheme”.  Now I don’t think this is necessarily an attempt to increase profitability (although that’s a distinct possibility).  Rather it’s an attempt at loss reduction, a reasonable business approach but one that is backfiring.  So either the rental companies get serious about documenting car condition before each rental, or they accept relatively small damage as a cost of doing business.  Unfortunately, though, either approach will cost us renters in the long run.

  2. It must consider wear and tear. I rented Alamo car in Honolulu, Dings and Scratches were all  around the car around. I mentioned it to check out clerk and they said it’s wear and tear, justdon’t worry about it. And they didon’t make a fuss when I returned the car.
    By the way, may be only my perception or impression but I noticed that women had more problems than men with car-rent issue, possibly they weren’t treated fairly as men. 

  3. Not going to vote on this one. While I do believe that there are circumstances in which car rental agencies are taking advantage, people have to take the responsibility to protect themselves. Mary admits she did only a visual inspection of a dirty car in a dimly lit area with no attendant present. She also states that she considered having them run it through the car wash again (which indicates there was someone available to her when she picked up the car), but opted not to because she had an appointment (allowing an appropriate amount of time to process your car rental pick-up/drop-off should be factored into every traveler’s plans yet rarely is). 

    Yes, perhaps Alamo could have done things differently, but Mary could have as well. I’m glad she got her money back, but I hope you didn’t have to fight too hard on her behalf. 

  4. If this one is as described, it appears that the Alamo agent knew that the car was damaged immediately… even though the OP had to look low to see the damage herself? A bit convenient on Alamo’s part, yes?

    The state of the industry is concerning as a whole. I rarely get a car that has just been washed on the outside. A couple of times I’ve gotten cars where they’re dirty enough that damage such as dents and scratches could be hidden. (I also rarely get a car anymore that is even half-full on gas.)

    When the car was being picked up at the airport, photos with the flash on probably would’ve been sufficient to help determine if there was any preexisting damage (even though nobody should have to get on their hand and knees to make sure they won’t get screwed). And it’s getting to the point where taking those photos should be SOP.

  5. All car rental companies are not the same.  Try Hertz next time.  The local manager in NY state told me less than two weeks ago, “We do not nickle and dime you to death.”  I agree.  Never had a dispute.

    1. Uh, I beg to differ!  While I certainly believe you when you say you’ve had good luck with them, I have described my own horror-story with Hertz in this comment section before, for another article… They didn’t “nickel and dime me to death”; instead, they invented $600 worth of unspecified “damage” with the (erroneous) assumption that my credit card automatically covered rental-car damage up to $600.  Ya think?  That’s a lot of nickels and dimes!  After all the **** I was served up by Hertz at every level, I wouldn’t drive a Hertz car if it was free… 

      1. In the end, this could happen to anybody with any of the rental companies.

        As for nickles and dimes, my nearest Hertz location (a downtown city location) has a surcharge that my nearest Enterprise location does not.

        So, Hertz is by no means above this kind of thing.

  6. Not to mention car rental companies are keeping their cars on the road much longer than they used to. I have seen rental cars with 40-50K on them. I think this is because the Big 3 automakers no longer subsidize car rental companies by cranking out new cars and selling them at a discount just to keep their production lines going.

    1. There was a time when the big car rental companies pretty much only had Big Three US automaker cars for rental.  Avis was known for being a GM outlet, Hertz carried Ford (even indirectly owned by Ford at one time), and several of the other national chains carried Chrysler.

      That’s certainly changed over the years. I remember when the Ford Taurus was the #1 selling passenger car in the US – primarily on the basis of large fleet sales to Hertz. I’ve rented cars that I never imagined would have been in a large US chain’s rental fleet 20 years ago, including a Mitsubishi, a Subaru Impreza, and a Hyundai. The Subaru actually drove better than any car I’ve ever rented. Most rental cars seemed to be chose for stiff performance and easy to drive characteristics.

      I think I’ve also been fortunate that I haven’t been dinged by a car rental. I’ve rented cars with dings and scratches, and I’ve been fortunate to never have been accused of either causing damage or of receiving damage on my watch.

  7. What they really should do is install cameras that take pictures of the car as they leave the lot and then again as you return the car. If they don’t have those pictures, they should not be able to file a claim against you.

  8. I am having the same issue right now with Purco / Hertz. They want over $900 for a scratch that is barely visible. What was crazy was that (1) I rented from Hertz but am told that Purco owns the location I rented from (never disclosed up front or on site) and (2) even their own photos barely show anything.

  9. Dollar once wanted to do the same to me showing me a scratch on a front right panel inside next to the wheel section, I just raised my brow and said – how I can possible make a scratch from inside of the panel? Stood quiet for couple of minutes and they let me go.

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