Charged $1,341 for damage I didn’t do

Question: I’m having a problem with a car rental, and I’m hoping you can help. I rented a car from National Car Rental in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. I did not take photos of the car at pick up or drop off. Big mistake!

I’m a very careful driver, and when I park, I avoid places where I could be dinged. When I picked up the car, I did a visual inspection and noted a scratch on the rear left bumper. An attendant indicated it was “noted in the computer.”

When I returned the car, the attendant noted a scratch on the front passenger side, on the lower bumper. I questioned being responsible for the scratch. Given its location, it could have been easily missed when I picked up the car. Also, I knew of no incident that would have caused the scratch.

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The attendant suggested I talk with the supervisor on duty, who clearly indicated everything was OK, I had nothing to worry about, and the matter would not go any further. There was no damage report mentioned or issued at that time.

One month later I received a vague letter from National Damage Recovery Service, saying that I was being held responsible for damage to the car. The extent or costs of damage were not specified. Also, the drop-off date and time indicated on this “vague letter” was incorrect by a day.

National wants to charge me $1,341 — far beyond what was evident on the car when I dropped it off. It sent me photos showing damage to the car that grossly exceeded the one scratch in question. My insurance carrier indicates that National has been extremely uncooperative on this matter and we are still in the middle of trying to resolve this issue. Can you help? — Theodore Mariano, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Answer: National shouldn’t have charged you for damage if it agreed to drop the matter. But you could have ensured that the matter would stay dropped with a few simple precautions.

First, as you note, you should have photographed the car both before and after the rental. Be thorough and take several shots of the front, including the bumper and the windshield.

If an employee points to some damage, then you absolutely have to fill out the paperwork — either a damage report or at the very least, a form that says the scratch is “normal” wear and tear and you won’t be charged for it. Don’t take anyone’s word for it. You won’t be able to prove a supervisor told you everything would be “OK” later unless you have something in writing.

Based on what you’ve told me (the paperwork irregularity, too high damage claim) I was equally suspicious of the bill you got from National. The fact that it isn’t being cooperative with your insurance company — at least according to you — makes me think the case may deserve a closer look by National’s damage-recovery unit.

Let me be clear about this: If the car was damaged on your watch, you should pay for the repairs. But I’m not sure if National has proven anything, except that it wants $1,341 from you.

I contacted National. A representative called you and said that upon a “more thorough review of its records” the scratch did indeed exist before you rented it. Still, National dropped its claim.

Should National have pursued this claim?

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32 thoughts on “Charged $1,341 for damage I didn’t do

  1. I always laugh when a company says “upon a more thorough review”. This must be code for “We got caught trying to scam a customer”.

  2. I would add to Chris’s advice, and it’s pretty sad you would have to do this, I’d take a photo of the VIN number thru the windshield. I wouldn’t put it past a rental agency to claim your photos were of a similar car.

        1. Personally, I have never had any problems with Hertz and in fact, they have gone out of their way for me when there was problems. However, there are others who report they have had problems with them too. But for the most part, I have heard nothing but problems with the Enterprise family. I am a Gold Member with Hertz and that does help. One time I was picking up a rental and noticed some small scratches and dings. I pointed it out to the clerk and he said that as a Gold Member, they never charge us for those small problems but if I wanted, he would fill out a damage report for it. He went back in and came out with the new contract noting the damage. YMMV with your experience.

          1. My experiences with Hertz have been stellar. My experiences with National/Alamo have been nothing short of abysmal

        2. Hertz costs a little more, but the humber of Enterprise and Dollar horror stories makes Hertz a better deal for honest rental customers.

      1. I’ve rented from Enterprise and Hertz in several states and have never had an issue.

        In the end, there are a lot of horror stories about all of the car rental companies.

        1. Yes. There have been some stories about others, but I would say at least 90% of the stories on Chris’ blog involve one of the Enterprise family and the “damage” scam. And like you, the couple of times I have rented from Enterprise I have not had an issue. I just consider myself lucky.

  3. While I agree about taking photos, how effective can they be? If we’re talking about a tiny scratch, how many dozens of photos would it take to get a closeup of every bit of the car upon rental and return, and how would you prove they were all of the same car in question from close-up angles? It’s getting to be hard to deny that the business model of car rental companies seems to be to scam customers about damage reports.

    Actually the obsession over tiny scratches is all of the rental companies’ making. In real life most people do not bother to spend money or make insurance claims on every tiny scratch. It’s only because of the terror of getting hit with massive bills for minor damage they weren’t responsible for that customers have to demand pristine cars and thus everything has to be noted, repaired, recorded, debated and, probably way too often, fabricated.

    1. I obsess over the small scratches, and they refuse to document them and tell me, it’s ok, we don’t charge for that. Until you get a bill that is. Then they deny everything, of course.

      1. I do too. However, I just rented a car with 6 miles on the odometer (they must have dropped it straight from a car carrier to the airport) and didn’t really bother taking any pictures. Still there was a tiny but very noticeable scratch (looked like it had been touched up lot damage) on the bumper, and I did take one picture of it for reference.

        The agent who went over the car before we took it off the lot said don’t worry – that they wouldn’t worry too much about nicks and scratches. Something about only seeking damages for anything more than a scratch or minor ding. Of course this could have been a different franchise or I could be receiving a harshly worded letter/email in a few weeks.

  4. It seems that the car rental agencies have the consumer between the metaphorical ock and hard place. Either you pay for their expensive insurance or you have to take all sorts of precautions and be prepared to fight.

    How many of these small scratches are from renters who buy the company insurance and the company decides not to fix the problem until it can be blamed on and paid for by another renter?

  5. It should. Will it? Will it charge for gas to fill up the car after returning drivers lied about doing so just before returning it? For making a mess in the trunk? After there was another driver although this was not paid for? Can go both ways.
    Have any scratches or dents noted on the contract or go to another rental

  6. Now, rental car companies make it HARDER for you to document preexisting damage. By policy, they do not provide the forms on the rental jackets (if you even get one anymore). They don’t do walk arounds at exit, and most of the time the exits are now unmanned, so you have no one to complain to, except go back inside to the building and again wait in line. They rig the game in their favor to be able to pursue these claims.

    Even with pictures, they are just as likely going to insist that your pictures are doctored, and that you owe an additional contribution to their bottom line.

  7. I have gotten in the habit of keeping a newspaper with me when I rent. Then either have someone with me hold it or place it such that the headline is prominent when I take the pics before accepting/dropping off a rental car. I mention that I’ll be taking pics and I’d like to think although it takes a few extra minutes, attendants seeing anyone taking such seemingly painstaking (or ridiculous if you want) steps isn’t worth trying to scam. But never have had a problem with ‘damage’ either.

  8. It seems like there have been a lot of stories about rental car company scams in the last month (Enterprise, National, Budget). Maybe it’s time to push for some consumer protection legislation since the companies can’t be trusted not to scam consumers.

    1. And do you realize that both Enterprise and National are the same company? Not sure if Budget is too. But it seems most of these stories are linked to the Enterprise et. al.

  9. While taking photos of the rental car before you drive off in it and after you return it sounds like a good idea, I found that rental cars are often parked in a large airport or downtown parking garage where there is neither enough room to bend down and check for damage on the lower parts of the car (like the bumpers or lower parts of the doors) or not enough light to photograph damage, particularly if it involves minor scratches.

  10. It’s sad that renting a car has to be such a hassle, and that customers who don’t elect to purchase the over-priced insurance have to live in fear of getting scammed.

    My rental horror story was an Alamo car I had during a business trip to LA; I think it was in 1999. On the first day of my rental, I was driving the car with a few colleagues as passengers, and we were following another colleague driving her own car. As we were heading down a sloping street approaching a stoplight, I stepped on the brakes — and nothing happened. There was nothing I could do; I ended up rolling right into the back of her car (thankfully, I wasn’t going very fast). There was no visible damage, but my colleague rightly wanted to have her car checked out by her regular mechanic. Long story short, Alamo tried to claim I was responsible for any damage/repairs to the cars because I didn’t take their insurance…and they tried to deny giving me a rental with faulty brakes! They put US in danger, and tried to shift the blame (and cost) to me. Luckily, I had witnesses in the car with me, and the colleague I hit insisted on getting recompense from them rather than me…so in the end, they didn’t recoup any money from me and ultimately agreed to pay for my colleague to have her car checked out by her own mechanic. Suffice it to say I have never rented from Alamo again.

    I have to admit, I was surprised to hear that Alamo was affiliated with Enterprise, because my recent experiences with Enterprise have been positive. I rented from them on a recent trip to Las Vegas, where they had an employee meet me at the cars to show me which ones I could choose from; then, when I selected a car, he carefully walked around it with me to inspect for damage, and explained what we were looking for (anything larger than a golf ball). (My husband snapped a few quick pics with the camera on his smartphone while we were checking.) Upon returning the car, the person who checked me in walked around it to check for damage before giving my receipt. My husband also rented from them in Austin, and had no problems. I would rent from them again based on these experiences.

    One other thing — we have auto insurance through AAA, and the insurance card (well, it’s actually a paper “card” we had laminated) specifically states, “Rental car coverage is provided.” I’ve found it’s handy to have that card on hand when rental companies try to give you the high-pressure insurance pitch. Other rental companies in the past have tried to tell me that personal auto insurance doesn’t cover rentals, so it’s nice to have proof on hand.

    1. Alamo was acquired by Enterprise Holdings in 2007 along with National.

      I actually had a pretty good experience with Enterprise recently. It was also a brand new car, so I was worried that any minor stuff that happens to any car would be attributed to me.

      While I do have auto insurance, I also have a credit card that effectively works like a collision damage waiver. Still – the agent asked for my deductible.

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