Help! My rental car is covered with dings

Why is Stacey Sproul’s rental car covered with dings? And why is she now being charged for the damage? This sounds like a job for the Travel Troubleshooter.

Question: I rented a vehicle from Dollar Rent A Car in Oakland recently. After waiting 45 minutes in a very long line that was only being serviced by one employee, I finally stepped up to the counter to initiate and complete my transaction for my vehicle.

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I declined the loss damage waiver because I had insurance coverage through my car insurance and credit card. I haven’t had an accident in a very long time, nor have I ever had rental car damage issues.

When I got to the vehicle, it was dark in the parking lot. The body looked fine in the very dim light. I was never asked to inspect the vehicle, and no one ever gave me a ‘car’ outline to indicate body issues with the vehicle.

I was shocked when I walked out of my sister’s home the next morning. The vehicle I rented was a mess of dings and dents. I contemplated calling Dollar and letting them know, but I felt as if they were going to pin me for the damage and wondered if it wasn’t better to just assume they knew the car was in rough shape and would accept it back the same way I had received it. So I did nothing.

I received a call from Dollar’s claims center a few months after my rental, demanding I pay about $412 for the repair. I explained that I rented the vehicle at night and didn’t see any damage, and the next morning I had a panic attack when I realized the vehicle was a total mess of dings, dents and damage.

I was told to pay or be put into collections. The person on the phone cited a portion of the contract that stated that I was responsible for all damage, even if we couldn’t determine the reason for the damage or the timeframe in which it occurred.

I strongly suspect that, if I did pay, they would do this again to someone else. The car I rented was a mess of slight damage. The pre-existing damage to the vehicle, coupled with not hitting anything while driving, coupled with the nighttime rental, leaves me feeling as if I am not responsible. Do I have any recourse? — Stacey Sproul, Greenville, N.C.

Answer: Yes — and no.

Dollar’s contract with you is unambiguous. You’re responsible for any damage discovered after you return the car even if you’re not responsible, and even if the damage existed before your rental.

Everyone messed up on this one. Let’s start with you. I’m sure you already know this, but always, always take pictures of your car before and after your rental. Also, never accept a car with any kind of damage, even little dings and dents. If you do, then make sure everything is documented with a pre-rental inspection and all the accompanying paperwork. Specifically, you’ll fill out a diagram of your car where you mark the damage. Make sure an employee, preferably a manager, signs the form.

Most important, you should call the rental company immediately if you see damage to one of its vehicles. The sooner, the better. Returning a car and hoping for the best is really not fair to the company or to the next renter, who might get stuck with a damage claim.

Dollar shouldn’t have had a car with damage on the lot. It should have provided a well-lighted space where it allowed renters to walk around the car and inspect for previous damage. It also took its time with your damage claim, waiting almost three months to contact you. Finally, the amount of the damage claim, $412, was close to the standard $500 deductible on an insurance policy, which made me suspicious.

In a case like this, it’s hard to know what really happened. The best you can do is appeal this to someone higher up at the company and hope for the best. I list the names, numbers and email addresses for Dollar’s customer service managers (http://elliott.org/company-contacts/dollar-thrifty-automotive-group) on my website).

I contacted Dollar on your behalf. It reviewed your case and agreed to drop its claim.

15 thoughts on “Help! My rental car is covered with dings

  1. Uh, yeah, she should have called Dollar right away (I’m not saying it would have helped, but it might have… it’s worked for me with Hertz in the past.) I can only attribute her reluctance to do so to panic, as it doesn’t make a lot of sense that they’d blame her on the phone, but fail to do so in person.

    And what happened on return? DID they flag the damage? The story kind of skips from her first night with the rental to several months later… what was said, and documented, at return is kind of an important detail.

  2. Such stories make me think that Dollar attempted to defraud the renter. Although the proof is nonexistent in this case, when will someone catch one of the agencies trying to collect for the same damages more than once? Sounds like an expose waiting to happen.

  3. If I were the cynical type (complete disclosure: I AM the cynical type) I would say that rental agencies just go down the line of past renters until they find someone who is willing to pay instead of documenting any additional damage between renters. This model must work for them–certainly easier than doing thorough inspections.

  4. I rented a car at JAC this year, and picked up after dark in the rain. I got to our lodging where it was lighter and covered, and discovered potentially reportable damage. A quick call to the rental counter to flag my contract, and all was well. I stopped by the next day to show them… they were unconcerned, and showed me the note on my contract. They really did write it on there!

  5. Had she been notified right away, I’d say “yep, she’s on the hook,” since she failed to inspect the car, but since it was apparently “several months” later, I say Advocate! Best case, you get the claim dropped; worst case, she’s no worse off than she is now.

    1. If your cell phone has a camera with an LED “flash” you can install a “flashlight” app and use it to inspect the car. (Android Lollipop even has it built in to the Quick Settings menu) Or just keep an actual LED flashlight with you; Harbor Freight occasionally sells them for a buck or gives them away with any purchase.

    2. My husband has a tactical flashlight that comes in so handy in all sorts of situations like this. I really teased him for spending $100 on a flashlight, but I’ll admit I was wrong. You can get them at a place like REI or military surplus. His isn’t even the best you can get, but it’s about 4 inches long and less than an inch circumference and it literally lights up the entire backyard. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been glad to have it to use in the few years we’ve had it. More than worth the money, everyone should have one. They’re very durable and work great for things like this, because you can’t miss anything.

      1. Thanks for the advice Rebecca and sirwired. I’ll have all three of our phone flashlights lighting up the place! and will look into the tactical style.

    3. Actually, I’ve found that the camera flash at night pretty much washes out any small dings and dents. I still take pictures, but my experience has been that it’s better to get a copy of the vehicle outline – usually part of the rental papers – and check off absolutely every location there is a mark, dent, scratch, dirt, whatever. Then have one of the personnel sign and date it. (Also check for the spare, tire tools, registration, etc.)With that you have a good defense against a claim that you caused any noted damage. And it’s easier to send a copy of that to the rental company than trying to send photos.

  6. Even if the checkout parking area is too dark for you to see, your camera’s flash will still see the dings that you can’t. Always get that set of pictures. If you can take them in view of the company’s employees (not in this case!) that will probably prevent them from pulling the damage scam on you in the first place.

  7. If these types of claims by the rental agencies are not fraudulent, then why do they so quickly drop them when pressed by someone who can provide negative publicity?

    Unfortunately it will probably be the next renter(s) who don’t know about Mr Elliott that will get stuck with this charge.

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