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On the Spot: Rental car repo leaves customer stuck

A customer has to find his own ride home when his rental car gets repossessed, something the company acknowledges shouldn't have happened. So why did it?

March 20, 2011|By Catharine Hamm | Los Angeles Times Travel editor

Question: I recently rented a car from Ace Rent a Car in Los Angeles for two days to attend a convention in Anaheim. On the second day, when I returned to the car, it was gone. At first I thought it had been stolen or towed, but eventually I found out that the car had been "returned," even though I wasn't the one who returned it, and even though my rental period wasn't due to end until the following morning. The car had been repossessed. I thought I'd rented it from Ace, but my key ring said Blue Oval. My wife — with whom I share a car — ended up driving to Orange County to pick me up. I'm still trying to get my money back, never mind reimbursement for the extra costs incurred. When you rent a car, you have to sign a contract agreeing to certain things. Are rental car companies bound by similar contracts?

Clay Marshall

San Pedro

Answer: Yes, they are. Marshall eventually did get his money back through his own efforts with Ace and his credit card company, he told me later.

But the Mystery of the Disappearing Car wasn't resolved as quickly.

In choosing letters about travel dilemmas, we try to select situations that offer "teachable moments" — that is, not just who is right or wrong, but what can be learned from certain situations in order to avoid a repeat in future travels.

But this situation is so bizarre that I'm not sure there's a takeaway.

Consumers should be aware of this: "There is a high degree of consolidation among the large national [rental car] players," said Stuart Greif, vice president global travel at J.D. Power & Associates in Westlake Village. Enterprise, Alamo and National are affiliated, and Hertz and Advantage are bedfellows. The number of affiliations, it's safe to say, has increased, although the consumer may be unaware of them.

Still, in dealing with almost 200 travel dilemmas in the last four years, I've never heard of a car being reclaimed. Efforts to reach Blue Oval were unsuccessful.

We did speak with Craig Parmerlee, director of business development at Ace Rent a Car Reservations Inc. in Indianapolis, who said he was "surprised and disappointed that the customer was left without a vehicle." Blue Oval, he said, "has been one of the partners serving San Francisco and Los Angeles," and he added that he was aware that some vehicles were "turned in a few weeks back." But, he said, "I was led to believe that they [customers] were all taken care of."

When I asked what "turned in" meant, he said, "Normally, these [vehicles] would be financed by some broker. If the person who was leasing the vehicles [not the person renting the car] didn't meet the terms, the broker would take the vehicles back. I assume that's what happened."

Even after that explanation, it's still not clear why Marshall got caught in this. What is clear is that he was stuck and, by law, was due reimbursement, said Al Anolik, a Bay Area travel attorney. "They didn't have the right to the car," Anolik said. "Ace owes for all reasonably expected damages." That, presumably, would include transportation home.

To avoid such situations? Pick a chain with integrity, Parmerlee said. "We feel like we make a strong effort so the customer is not left without protection." Except this time, when the customer had to find his own ride home. On a Friday night. From Orange County to San Pedro. That's not exactly protecting the customer.

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