Hey Thrifty — I didn’t want this insurance or this toll transponder

Wherever you go these days you see people looking intently at their smartphone screens. They’re very absorbed in what they’re reading on those small screens while ignoring distractions such as traffic. If more people paid as much attention to the screens that display the contracts at car rental counters, we would have far fewer complaints about surprise rental car charges.

In Robert Goodbar’s case, the car rental contract was displayed on what Thrifty Car Rental calls an “electronic signature capture screen.” If he had paid attention to that screen, his rental bill would have been a lot lower.

Goodbar’s surprise charges included not only the optional collision damage waiver (CDW), which he says he declined, but also daily fees for a toll road transponder.

All around the country, entities that operate toll roads and bridges have been switching to automated toll collection systems because it reduces their costs and speeds up the flow of traffic. In some locations, such as the Golden Gate Bridge, toll booths have been completely eliminated, with no place to stop and pay the toll. But that doesn’t mean it’s free. They now collect the tolls via transponders. If a vehicle doesn’t have a transponder, the system can still identify the car and bill the registered owner. If that owner is a rental car company, it could cost the renter a lot more than just the missed toll.

Here’s how that’s relevant in Goodbar’s case. He rented a car from Thrifty in Denver for 10 days. Thrifty has a prepaid toll road option called PlatePass All Inclusive. For a daily fee – $12.49 in Goodbar’s case – unlimited tolls are included. While Thrifty says the PlatePass system is optional, they also point out the potential cost of not using it:

NOTE: If you decline the optional PlatePass All-Inclusive service at beginning of the rental period, but still use electronic toll roads and/or bridges during the rental period (including “cashless” or “all electronic” toll roads and bridges, as noted above), you will be liable for and we will charge you: (a) all tolls incurred for such use (at the highest, undiscounted applicable toll rate); (b) a $15 administrative fee for each toll incurred (subject to a $90 cap for such toll-related administrative fees for the rental period); and (c) all other applicable toll charges or fees, if any.

Goodbar says he never approved the PlatePass transponder. But the money he could have saved by not having that transponder on his contract would have been at least partly lost to fees imposed by Thrifty for the four toll roads he says he drove on. The company would have charged him at least $60 in administrative fees plus the tolls, plus “all other applicable toll charges or fees.” If the number of toll roads had been larger, the extra fees might have been more than the total daily transponder charge.

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Thrifty is not the only rental car company offering prepaid toll transponders or charging hefty fees for incurring tolls. Christopher Elliott wrote about how to protect yourself from those “gotcha” fees in this article.

Going back to Goodbar’s situation, he contacted Thrifty’s customer service asking to have the CDW and transponder charges refunded, claiming he never approved them. The company declined, writing that he had accepted both of those options:

Review of your agreement shows that you accepted optional coverage. The costs of all optional items are listed on the electronic signature capture screens provided at the start of the rental. The use of the electronic device has taken the place of a traditional paper contract for the protection of our renters and to lower the amount of time needed to review pertinent information. The first screen you encounter will list any optional items you have requested and the total cost for these items. Another screen is presented that lists the total cost of the rental including optional items and by accepting this screen and signing the agreement you acknowledge that you have read and understood the terms and charge breakdown.

In what the company called a goodwill gesture, Thrifty said it would issue a credit to Goodbar for $163, which was half of the CDW charge.

But he wasn’t happy with that and contacted us. Our advocate got a copy of his rental agreement from Thrifty. It shows that both the CDW and the transponder were included, along with the cost for each and it has his signature, indicating acceptance. The company representative told our advocate that there was nothing more Thrifty would do.

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I had just finished writing this story when I got a surprise update. I can now report a happy ending.

As suggested by our advocate, Goodbar decided to give it one last shot and wrote a letter to an executive contact for Hertz, Thrifty’s parent company.

Then he sent the following note to our advocate: “Thank you. I wrote ONE letter to one of the contacts you gave me. Two hours later I had a reply advising me that they were issuing a second credit – We received $423.78!!!!”

While Goodbar got those extra fees credited back, too many people don’t. We continue to get cases every week involving vehicle renters who don’t take the extra time to review what is on the rental agreement before they sign.

You may be tired from your flight or in a hurry to get to your destination. There may be a line of impatient rental customers behind you. With more rental counters using electronic signature screens, it can be so easy to just touch the button that says “accept” so that you can hurry up and get to your car.

Instead, take a deep breath and spend an extra few minutes to review the critical pages of your rental agreement. Double-checking the rental contract will help you avoid unexpected charges. And it will definitely cost you a lot less in time and aggravation than fighting with the rental car company after you get home.

Abe Wischnia

Abe started his working career as a television news reporter and newscaster before moving to corporate communications and investor relations. Now retired and having learned useful tips from Elliott.org, one of his volunteer activities is writing for us. Read more of Abe's stories here.

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