The Travel Troubleshooter: Whose car rental bill is this, please?

Question: I recently rented a pickup truck through National in Berkeley, Calif., for a one-way move to Walla Walla, Wash. The two-day trip went smoothly, and we loaded and unloaded the truck without incident.

When I returned the vehicle to the rental agency, I did a thorough walkaround, and found not one iota of damage. I cleaned the interior, and opened and closed the back gate to check for any left-behind items, and found the truck bed in exactly the same condition I rented it in.

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I brought the keys to the counter, and the agent accepted them, and told me they would send me my final invoice. No one was in the lot to check the condition of the truck with me and verify the condition of the truck.

A few months later, I got a call from a collection agent at Enterprise, which owns National He said there had been $750 worth of damage to the truck’s back gate and left rear side.

I was shocked. When they finally sent me the documents, they showed massive damage to the rear gate. There also appeared to be some sort of collision damage. The repairs were executed months after my rental.

I told him I couldn’t have done it. They refuse to hear from me or treat the case as anything but an opportunity for monetary gain, and I was dumb enough not to have photographed the truck or have them do a full inspection.

As of today they will be sending the bill to collections, so unless they hear reason I will be harassed and my credit possibly damaged. This is really a nightmare for me, in part because I find myself so helpless to the wolfish and questionable practices Enterprise Holdings and National Rent-a-Car has employed.
How is the allowable, legally? What are my options for pressing my case? — Dan Anthony, Eugene, Ore.

Answer: National’s efforts to collect damages from customers who damage its cars is completely legal. Coming after you, however, is another question.

Here are a few things that concern me about your case: First, the timing. A lot of time had passed between the time of your rental and the repairs and subsequent damage claim. That’s highly unusual. Damages to a rental car should be identified at the time of your return, and the repairs should be made promptly – not months later.

Second, I’m troubled by what you say was National’s attitude. An ethical damage claim must include a credible appeals process. It sounds to me as if your complaints were simply dismissed.

National should have shown you time-stamped photos of the damage to the truck immediately after your rental, a repair estimate, and an invoice from the body shop. It sounds to me like there were some paperwork problems.

And not just on the car rental company’s part. As you say, you should have photographed the truck, both before and after the rental. Use the digital camera on your phone or shoot video, but whatever you do, get some evidence of pre-existing damage or of the fact that you returned the car in good condition.

Also, you shouldn’t have accepted the agent’s assurance that everything was fine and that an invoice would be sent to you. Next time that happens, ask for a manager and conduct a walkaround. Get the manager to sign the receipt and, if possible, to indicate in writing that the vehicle was returned in acceptable condition. That limits any future claims.

No one is trying to get out of paying a bill, here. It’s just that you want to make sure you’re paying your bill, not someone else’s. I asked National about your case, and a representative contacted you, and said proper procedures hadn’t been followed in your case.

They dropped their claim against you.

35 thoughts on “The Travel Troubleshooter: Whose car rental bill is this, please?

  1. Rented a one yesr old 15000 mile Crown Vic from Enteprise last week, during the 15 second walk around the agent tried to dismiss all of the preexisting damage “that’s smaller than a golf ball”, “that will buff out so don’t worry about it” etc. I insisted that he mark them all down anyway. Upon return of the car after a rain stormnthe same agent spent several minutes going over the car, at times almost on his hands and knees, trying to find damage that wasn’t on the contract.

    Now tell me that damage claims are not a profit center for Enterprise.

  2. I wish I could say I was surprised that National did this, but I’m not. It says something about how prevalent this problem is when we all insist on taking before and after pictures. If it was an honest industry, we wouldn’t have to. It’s unfortunate that the first thing you check for in stories like this is if the victim took pictures. Lots and lots of pictures in a brightly lit area that zoom in and show every inch of the car.

    Chris, I wanted to point out that there are plenty of rental places that don’t/won’t do an immediate walk around upon request. I rent from a smaller airport here in the Midwest and they don’t usually have more than 1 employee, no matter what company it is. Every time I ask for a pre/post rental walk around they can’t do it because it would leave the desk area empty. It’s been like this for several years. Even at Houston International I’ve had the same things. I picked up the car at 2100 and was one of many people waiting in line. I asked for a walk around and was told no because they were busy with all the people in line. There was nothing I could do but accept the car and do my best to take pictures in the dim parking garage. I returned it at 0500 two days later and the location wasn’t even open, so, again, no one could check it. Frankly, I haven’t had a place that could/would walk with you for the pre-rental check in a couple of years. It may not be like this at all places, but it’s just not practical to expect that at all locations any more.

    1. In cases like this, where they refuse to inspect the car immediately at return, I would think you should be able to note on the contract that they refused to inspect and therefore accept the vehicle’s condition as is.  That’s they way they treat you if you fail to inspect the vehicle when you rent it so why shouldn’t the same standard apply to them?

    2. I’m thinking nowadays they are working understaffed as an excuse to not do walk around in order to pull of the damage scam. I’ve noticed the same thing lately as well–excuse after excuse why the employee can’t leave the counter.

    3. I recently dropped off a rented car to Hertz at Long Island/MacArthur Airport in Islip NY. The signs in the rental car parking lot indicated that I needed to note the mileage and the gas gauge reading on the rental envelope, take the keys, lock the car and bring the envelope and keys inside the terminal to the Hertz counter. When I arrived at the counter, there was another sign informing me that the Hertz agent was at lunch and that I needed to insert the keys in the envelope and drop it into a lock box. I had hoped to get the agent to sign off on the damage report that was prepared when I took possession of the vehicle at another, much larger airport. I didn’t have time to wait for the agent since I was running late. My only option was to go to the airline ticket counter to check in for my flight. It’s been about a month and I’ve heard nothing from Hertz.

      It would be great to always get a car rental company employee to sign off on the return but in reality, it is not always possible to do so.

  3. This is exactly why I never use Enterprise or any of it’s subsidiaries. They are notorious for “damage” scams. I hope the OP reported them to the BBB or even the state attorney general’s office.

    1. Unfortunately, recent revelations showing that the BBB is in the pocket of politicians and lobbyists, minimizes the chances that they will help out. Remember their Excellent ratings for Trip Assured, Prime travel Protection, and several prominent Cruise Agencies?

      1. Oh, right, I had forgotten about that.
        I’d say contact our congressmen, but they’re in the pockets of lobbyists as well. There has to be someone who would act…hmm…any ideas?

  4. Yet another example of why Enterprise/National is on my list of companies not to do business with.  There seems to be reports of them doing this type of scam every week on this site.  I guess they keep doing it because they get away with it often enough that it makes them money.

    I can see the side of the rental companies when there is actual damage done by a renter.  I would want damage to my car paid for by the person doing the damage too.  And I am more than willing to pay to have damage repaired that I caused.  But there just seems to be too many examples of rental car companies billing for damage, never repairing it, and then billing the next unlucky renter for the same damage over and over.  Or as in this case, picking the renter who probably didn’t buy the insurance coverage and trying to stick him with the repair costs months after the rental for something he did not do.  If the damage was as extensive as reported, I believe they would have contacted him the next day if not sooner informing him of the damage and not waited months and expect him to pay up.  The truck had to have been rented at least once, and probably multiple times, after he rented it.  

  5. One “quick fix” would be to impose a Statute of Limitations” on these car rental companies. If they haven’t informed the care renter of damage (real or imagined) within 30 days, they shouldn’t be allowed to do it. Unfortunately, though, the rental companies have lobbyists, and we don’t, so this isn’t going to happen.

  6. Wow, it seems Elliott handles at least one of these a week.  Elliott has said it before, and we at AutoSlash constantly remind our customer…  Take pictures of your rental vehicle from multiple angles (preferably date/time-stamped), both at pickup and at return.  

    Yes, we know it’s a pain, and theoretically you should have to resort to this CYA type behavior, but it’s absolutely your best protection against this type of frivolous claim.  With most of us carrying around cell phones with cameras these days, it’s usually a quick couple of snapshots on the way our and back in, and it’s your best defense should a dispute arise.

    See more tips on protecting yourself at the AutoSlash blog here: 

    1. What about if you pick up or return the car on a dark and stormy night?  It’s not just a pain to take photos – it’s sometimes impossible!

      1. Not even just stormy nights. Sometimes rental cars are picked up in garages that have lighting that’s so poor that you can’t even be sure of the color of the vehicle.

  7. Glad this was resolved. But yes, photos are the only way to do it. My strategy is to put the car rental contract on the window before I ever start the car, and take photos, making sure I include the license plate in one. That way, since it’s in a dark parking deck, there’s no mistake. Before I return the car, when I fill it up, I take photos or video while the gas is going in the tank. This usually means the car is sitting outside, in daylight, and there’s no mistake there, either.
    One more thing: Chris has warned people to make sure they keep their gas fill-up receipt. One alternative to this is to take a photo of the receipt, so if you misplace it, then the photo is on your phone and ready to e-mail.
    It’s a shame we have to go to these lengths, but if we don’t, it’s obvious these car rental companies aren’t going to do the ethical thing unless someone holds their feet to the fire.

  8. Isn’t it funny that, when pressed by someone other than the person they are trying to get money out of, they cite “improper procedure” and drop the claim?

    The more likely scenario is one of the employees damaged the truck and told the powers that be it was a renter.

  9. A slight digression, but:  What is the value of a “time-stamped” picture?  How hard is it to change the time/date in a digital camera to the desired date, take some pictures, and change it back?  Might be harder with a phone camera since it gets its time info from the cell system.  Therefore a picture taken with a phone might be better evidence.  But most phones don’t, to my knowledge, have the capability of putting the time/date right on the photo, as opposed to just in the metadata, and it isn’t hard to go into a photo file and change the time/date.  Any thoughts on effective proof, Chris?

    1. There are also computer programs that will allow you to go in after pulling pictures from the device and change the time/date info. Time stamped is no guarantee anymore.

    2. You can always put a copy of that day’s newspaper on the car for the before and after photos. Let the rental company argue with the newspaper office! LOL. I can just hear them, “Well, Your Honor, it’s possible the New York Times had exactly the same front page twice in one week!” And listen while the judge laughs them out of court.

  10. I wonder how prevalent is this issue.  Speaking from personal experience, I travel all over the US and generally have about 25 rentals each year.  To date, I have never a complaint that I damaged a car.  When I was younger I would rent from Budget and Alamo.  Today, it’s almost exclusively Hertz.  My father, another frequent traveler, hasn’t had this problem either. He rents from Avis.

    1. The rental companies are smart enough not to piss off their frequesnt renters, so you are probably safe as is your father and anyone else who rents that much.  They know if they hassle you, you will take your business elsewhere (even though there are fewer and fewer “elsewheres” available).  So they blame everything on the infrequent customer hoping they don’t know it is a scam and will pay up without too many questions.  While this means they are not gaining any new permanent customers and will eventually hurt their profits, the focus on the immediate profit is what drives them to these types of scams.

      I rent about the same number of times with Hertz yearly as you do and also have had no issues except for one time where an over zelous return agent tried to claim that since I had only marked the back of the bumper on the damage report, the scratch on the side of the bumper was my fault. (All damage was present when I rented.)  The location manger, after reviewing my history said not to worry.  I was never billed for any damage.

  11. Photos and videos do help! I walked around with my cell phone video as the agent inspected my rental car (at enterprise btw). They spent about 30 seconds walking around the car before I asked them to make notes on numerous small scuffs and marks that the agent said were “too small to note”.

    When I brought the car back the agent was meticulous in his review of the car. As another poster noted, they even got down on one knee to look at the undercarriage. When the agent brought up the scuffs/scratches on the trunk’s threshold above the bumper (I never used the trunk for the 2 days I had the car) he was shut right down when I showed him my cell phone video from 2 days prior.
    I’m not saying this is a scam but the more and more reports I hear from people about damage claims on rental cars being charged months later it makes me concerned their is a company wide program that encourages staff to charge and double charge people for small repairs that are ultimately never made.

  12. I’m betting that Walla-Walla is a franchise location, and business has been slow….

    I wonder if the time lag resulted from going from the most recent renter, who challenged the claim, to the next most recent, etc., until they got to Dan.  I feel sorry for whoever rented it before him.

  13. Thanks for the post. I would also advise people read thoroughly through information regarding scams in the country they are going to at There is a list of Top 10 scams in all of the most popular places, so this should help to stay out of trouble. There are probably a lot of similarities with the book, but it’s being updated regularly 🙂 

  14. Chris, Thank you for helping him.  Maybe other car rental firms will get the hint.  Or maybe the next time a rental car is needed, I will take a camera along to take pictures of its condition when it is picked up & when it is returned.  But, should I let car rental agencies know that these pictures have been taken?         Alan Kardoff

  15. Maybe we should all add a little note to our contracts: “In the event of wrongful charges I WILL contact Christopher Elliott.”  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, LOL. 

  16. After being a life long Enterprise customer (over twenty years), and being subject to one of these scams (which was dropped after four months of arguing), I will never use them or National again. The anxiety itself is not worth it. What surprises me is how the company is apparently willing to have their reputation completely ruined over a short term profit gain. I have told my Enterprise story to all of my colleagues and our company has subsequently placed them on our “do not use” list.

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