Tuesday, Sep 21, 2021

Rent-A-Car Scams

There are many reasons a person might rent a car: a family going away on vacation needing a van (or a larger van); a bochur on a date; an accident that requires a replacement car until a new one is bought or the old one is repaired. Most of the time, the rental goes smoothly. But not always. Sometimes there are unexpected costs or other surprises that accompany the experience. But the bigger question is: Are these random acts accidents or part of a large industry-wide scam?

Chesky, a young married man in kollel, got into a car accident. Boruch Hashem, he was fine, but the car was totaled. The insurance company promptly set up a claim and directed him to a major rental company in his area to get a car to use until they could verify the damage and issue him a check for the value of the totaled car so that he could buy a new one. The process could take a month, they informed him. Meanwhile, the claim allotted him up to $50 a day to spend on a rental car.

He took a taxi to the rental office, which already had several customers waiting. He approached the front desk and spoke to a salesman, who brought up the claim on his computer.

“It says here that the insurance will cover you for up to $50 a day,” the salesman said, “but the least expensive car we have available is $55 a day.”

Chesky looked confused. He was not particularly street savvy, especially when it came to dealing with slickly dressed, fast-talking salesmen. But he gathered himself together and told the fellow to wait a moment.

He walked outside. Maybe he should try a different rental place. On one hand, $5 was not much, but on the other hand, if he had to rent for a month, it would be $150. He was on a very tight kollel budget. Besides, Hashem only gives a person what he needs. Maybe this was a test. Was it the ratzon Hashem to spend the $5 a day or seek out another place and save the money? Maybe the $5 was worth it to avoid spending more time, potential bittul Torah, getting this settled.

Suddenly, the salesman motioned for him to come back inside.

“Your lucky day,” he said. “I just realized that I can give you a different, even better car, and you don’t have to pay any of your own money. It will all be covered by insurance.”

Chesky smiled. It truly was his lucky day. Not only did they find this other car, but, after adding tax, the total came out to $49.98 per day. What a coincidence!

The salesman then continued asking him questions and typing the answers into the computer. Finally, speaking at a faster clip, he asked, “Would you like rental insurance? For just a few bucks a day you can get a million dollars of coverage.”

“How much is it?”

“$28 a day.”

“A day?”

“Yes.”

“Is it covered by insurance?”

“No.”

“Is it necessary?”

“It’s better than paying a lot more money for any dents or scratches you might get, and certainly if you get into an accident.”

“Okay, I guess I have no choice.”

As Chesky was about to sign the contract, the salesman said, “Sorry, I lied. But your vehicle is worth over $30,000, and as such costs $30 a day, not $28.”

Chesky gave him a look but believed he had no choice. When he signed the paper, he noticed that it was actually $32.99 a day!

After the paperwork was done, the salesman led him outside to the lot and showed him his car. He told Chesky to look at the car to see if he saw any damage. Before Chesky could answer, the salesman shoved a clipboard and pen in Chesky’s hands and said, “Here, sign.”

Chesky signed. Then he got in the car and left.

Even as he pulled his almost-new, nice-smelling rental car out of the lot, he knew something was rotten. He would call his friend Dovid, who knew about cars. Sure enough, Dovid told him that rental insurance was a rip-off. “No one buys it,” he said.

Just then Chesky’s mother called. She also told him that he didn’t need the rental insurance. It was now about a half-hour after Chesky had left the rental parking lot. He decided to call the place back and tell them to cancel the rental insurance.

“Okay,” the salesman told him, “but I have to charge you for the whole day.”

“But it’s not even 30 minutes.”

“Any part of a day is a whole day.”

Chesky’s nature was to let things go. It was not worth arguing. “Fine,” he said. “Just make sure it is cancelled starting tomorrow.”

And then Chesky’s mother called back. “You won’t believe this. I just read a letter-to-the-editor in the local paper from a person who went to this exact rent-a-car place that you went to and got the same treatment you did! Even worse, when he went to return the car, they falsely accused him of scratching it up. I don’t like the smell of this. I think you should cancel the rental tomorrow, return the car, and go to another dealer. I called the insurance company and have the name of another car rental place.”

Chesky agreed. Tomorrow he would return the car.

The next day dawned bright and sunny. Chesky, ever the conscientious learner, made sure to bring the car back during a break in learning. After he walked into the office and explained that he wanted to cancel the rental, he could see that the salesman was upset that he was returning it so soon and unexpectedly. Nevertheless, Chesky insisted that he wanted to cancel. The salesman then went with Chesky out to the car for the routine inspection that takes place whenever a rental car is returned.

As they walked around the car, the agent said, “We are only looking for dings about the size of a golf ball or larger, or scratches that are about five inches or longer. Anything else we ignore;
we don’t care about that.” The agent even had a clipboard with a ruler on it.

The agent walked around the car once, looked at everything, and saw there was no damage. “Boruch Hashem,” Chesky thought to himself.

Then there was a second walk-around and a peek at the roof as well. Still no damage visible to any human being. “Boruch Hashem,” Chesky thought to himself again.

Then came the third walk-around. Suddenly, the salesman’s eyes focused on one spot of dirt at the bottom of the car near the door. He bent down and rubbed it with his finger. Lo and behold, beneath it was a small scratch.

“It looks like you got into a fender-bender overnight.”

“What?!” Chesky said.

“It looks like it from these scratches.”

“The scratch must already have been there. I mean, the dirt looks old and I hardly drove the car.”

“Then maybe it was vandalized or someone bumped into it while it was parked at night.”

No matter how much Chesky tried to reason, the agent was insistent that the car was damaged and had to be taken out of service for repairs. He was going to write up a report and bill Chesky’s insurance company or credit card.

Welcome to the world of rent-a-car scams, a scam that happens all over the United States. This is only one example of a pattern that is often reported: upon returning a car, the company finds a tiny dent (perhaps that was already there) and sends the unsuspecting customer a bill for hundreds of dollars, threatening to send them into collection if they don’t pay. Chesky’s experience is so common that it is as if there is a secret handbook somewhere out that tells rental car places how to scam people.

Indeed, confessions of former managers suggest that this was not just the behavior of a single, unscrupulous agent, but part of a pattern designed to take the consumer for a ride, no pun intended.

Confessions of a Rent-a-Car Manager

The Consumerist, a magazine offering “consumer-driven advice,” featured an article on March 13, 2007, titled “9 Confessions From A Former [Car] Rental Salesman.” Drawing on information provided by the former divisional manager of a major rent-a-car company, it offered tips and insider information about “how the car rental game” really works. Apparently burdened by a guilty conscience, this manager wanted to blow the whistle:

In more than six years of employ with [Company X Rent-A-Car] I worked as a grunt (“management trainee”), assistant and branch manager, and finally a manager in the fleet sales division. I know every sad angle of the rental car business and I think people should be educated about some of the games that go on behind the counter. This list is truly the tip of the iceberg; I left the company because I had some misgivings about corporate policies toward customers and employees, but needless to say, I picked up a lot of information along the way.

Chesky’s friend told him that no one should buy rental insurance. This former division manager explains why:

By now, everyone knows that you don’t need that extra rental insurance, but just like service contracts at Best Buy, you can negotiate the daily rate of your rental down by agreeing to add all the insurance (we call it “full boat” when some poor soul gets soaked for all of the extra protections – damage waiver, personal accident insurance, and supplemental liability: the trifecta of consumer stupidity). One of the lines that I used to use was, “For just a few bucks a day you got a million dollars of coverage.” True, but the full million dollar payout from the supplemental liability doesn’t come due unless you die. Gruesomely.

The Consumerist then quoted the manager as saying: “Managers are the ones responsible for how much insurance (usually called “waiver”) their branch sells. Frontline agents (“manager trainees”) aren’t commissioned; they just look a lot better on paper if they sell lots of waiver. This is also how they get promoted. The branch manager or assistant manager will be just as likely – if not more so – to drop the daily rate in order to sell you his pricey insurance package.”

There are numerous consumer protection groups saying the same thing. For instance, according to Consumeraffairs.com: “Selling consumers additional insurance coverage, often unnecessarily duplicating coverage they already have, is the primary way car rental companies increase the cost of the rental. These polices can come disguised as any of the following: collision damage waiver, supplemental liability protection, personal accident insurance, or personal effects coverage. You’re likely to pay as much as $30 a day extra if you accept these fees. Some companies will ask for huge deposits if you decline the insurance, or not rent to you at all – which is illegal in most states.”

In short, selling extra insurance is a big money-maker for rent-a-car companies. They know it and they try to squeeze the unsuspecting consumer for all they can get.

Prices are Fluid

Chesky’s insurance company allotted him $50 a day for a replacement car. At first, the salesman told him they didn’t have a car of less than $55 a day, but after seeing Chesky walk away, he suddenly told him that he had one in his price range that had just become available. And how much was that suddenly-free-one? Miraculously, after taxes and everything, it was just about $50. Miracle of miracles!

The former division manager quoted in the Consumerist article provides the insight into how such a situation happens and why it is common. She says that the rate you got when you called in was either the full retail rate or “the first number that popped into the agent’s head.”

She explains:

There are three main categories of rentals – personal (retail), corporate, and insurance – but on every single contract that goes out, the agent manually types out how much you pay per day, and he has authority to make it pretty much whatever he thinks you should pay. When an employee makes a reservation, it’s critical to key in the rate quoted so that the branch knows what to charge the customer when she comes in; otherwise, nobody would know what to charge.

A good branch manager trains his employees to adjust the price as needed to keep the lot sitting tight. That means making some way-too-cheap deals when there are too many cars around. It also means someone walking in and saying that they need a car no matter the price. That customer might get charged twice what he would have paid just asking for a car.

The former manager adds that the price is often determined by the mood of the employee. The better they feel, the better the deal they are apt to give; the worse their mood, the worse the deal. All employees hate “the ride,” where they have to pick up a customer and drive them back to the shop. “If you make us pick you up, even if you’re really close, we won’t be so happy to serve you as if you’d walked in,” the manager says. “Therefore, set the deal up on the phone, and if you can get a ride in, do it. It seems small, but every little bit helps. The agent is holding all the cards until your contract gets signed. You’re already getting a way too cheap deal on his car – give the guy a break if you can get a ride in just as easily.”

In short, the rental place has a lot of leeway to adjust the price; their prices are fluid. They can play games with it, charging more for people in need or people they think they can take advantage of.

Dings Dos and Don’ts

Chesky was accused of returning a car with a dent large enough to incur an extra charge, something he found implausible, especially since the alleged ding was discovered on the third pass by the employee and discovered only after he rubbed away dirt that seemed to be there longer than the 24 hours he had the car. Chesky would have felt more confident dealing with the situation had he read some of the confessions of rental employees.

It is not necessarily a scam, but damages are often blamed on the customer. This is because if damage to a car gets missed, it is the employee who is in trouble. At the end of the day, if there is any damage that is unaccounted for, any car that is stolen, and any cars that are left on the lot and not rented out, it is money that one way or another comes out of the branch manager’s check. That is why customer service goes out the window, and [Company X] is quick to blame the customer for damages.

A victim described her experience:

I was recently a victim of this when I was accused of wrecking a car because the frame was bent under the car. When I told the employee truthfully that I did not wreck this car, nor did I hit anything or run anything over with the car, he just outright said, “Sorry maam, you wrecked the car. You slammed the car when you were parking the vehicle and you are liable for the damage!”

A former employee admits:

The bit about cars getting vandalized on his property is likely 99% untrue. There’s a chance, but honestly, we’d use that line on customers all the time when I used to work there. We were trying to make the customer second-guess themselves… You know why he has to blame you? Because his branch will have to eat the cost of the repair if you’re right…

If this sounds shocking, it is. But there are measures consumers can take – preventative measures as well as after-the-fact ones.

Advice

The best advice is to be very vigilant before taking the car, at the beginning, when the rent-a-car salesman is first checking the car for dents and damages.

Some experienced consumers suggest videoing the car as it is checked, but that is usually not necessary. Rather, simply walk around with him and note everything. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Ask if a dent or scratch you see is a problem. The pickier you are, the better.

However, let’s say it is after-the-fact. You’ve returned the car and, like Chesky, they accuse you of damage you know you did not do. There are still things that can be done.

Rental companies have records of previous damages and an employee can pull up information about the car when requested. Don’t allow them to say they have no access to that information. A multi-million (or multi-billion) dollar company keeps records. You can take them to court for not having proper information and falsely accusing you of wrongdoing.

Each rent-a-car company also has something called a Loss Control Department (or a similar sounding name). If they haven’t contacted you first, ask them to review the past 10 rental contracts for that damage. If the damage was there, chances are that someone documented it. Employees get busy and miss damage or simply cannot see it sometimes due to night lighting or weather (snow, rain, etc.).

You can also get the history on the vehicle after you returned it. Chances are (a “95%” chance, according to some) that they re-rented the same car afterward even though it was in this “disastrous, dangerous” and ugly condition, thus giving you a little more ammunition for your cause.

One person who was falsely accused by their rental company of causing $954 of damages for a one-day rental followed this advice and requested the 10 previous rental agreements. They received the following response from Lost Control:

Thank you for alerting me to the fact that you were disputing this claim. I pulled prior contracts at your request and the damage was in fact previous and overlooked at the time you rented the vehicle. I apologize for any inconvenience. Please note that the claim is now closed and you can disregard any bills that you have received.

Falsely accusing customers of causing damage is an industry-wide problem. If you are falsely accused and try to talk to a manager or someone higher up in the company, the best advice is not to get angry or short. Eventually, someone from the Loss Control Department will contact you. They handle all the claims on damaged cars and make the final call on whether they can legally pursue you for damages. They get yelled at all day long by people who try to beat the system. So be calm and speak nicely to them, but be logical. If you fly off the handle, they will probably do whatever they can to make your life difficult.

Your best ammunition is “reasonable doubt.” Loss control people have worked in rental. They know what it is like to be busy or check a car in/out in the rain, etc. They know rental employees make mistakes, so they will believe you when you say the person only “glanced” at the car.

– – – – –

Although this article is about rent-a-car scams, most people will probably not experience the problems mentioned here. However, don’t assume that there aren’t people and places out there just waiting for unsuspecting customers, looking to rip you off. Therefore, do your due diligence.

When it comes to renting cars, the buyer has to not only beware, but also read the fine print.

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