(Diane Bigda / For The Times )
Question: I had a rental car in St. Louis in early May. Recently I received a bill for $1,200 plus a $100 administrative fee because, the rental car agency said, a hailstorm 21/2 hours after I arrived caused significant damage. I didn't notice any damage. I am receiving stern letters and phone calls. I did not take the full insurance coverage. How can I defend myself?
Playa del Rey
Answer: This is a new twist on an increasingly common complaint from renters: After returning what they think is a car in the same condition in which they received it, they arrive home and get a big fat bill for damage. It feels bogus.
It may not be, although the damage may be minuscule. The economic downturn has hurt car rental companies as it has nearly all other travel-related providers, so they are seeking every available dollar, said Jonathan Harriman, an attorney with Anolik Law Corp., a Bay Area firm that specializes in travel law. Now, Harriman said, some companies have employees who look ever so closely at every car. Even the tiniest ding may now be classified as damage for which the customer may be charged. Whether the car rental company fixes it is another matter.
If you're faced with this dilemma — and judging by the amount of mail we've been receiving, increasing numbers of people are — your first move is to dispute the claim with your credit card company. The only hitch with that? The car rental company doesn't have to play that game and could take you to small claims court, so you might concurrently check to see whether the credit card you used to rent the car offers any coverage. CardHub.com, a credit-card comparison site, recently released results evaluating rental car coverage and found that Visa ranked No. 1, followed by Discover, American Express and MasterCard. (To read more: http://www.lat.ms/QAFR0m.) Two problems with this: About a quarter of all consumers don't know that cards sometimes offer such protection, and the protection that comes with the card used has lots of exclusions (driving on unpaved roads, for instance).
Your last option is to check with your car insurance company and have a conversation that goes like this: "I'm not saying this happened, but if it did, what kind of coverage do I have?" If you put in a claim and it's covered, be aware that you may risk paying higher rates.
To protect yourself next time — experience is such an annoying teacher — slow down, said Mark Hanna, a spokesman for the Insurance Council of Texas, which bills itself as the largest state insurance trade association in the country. "People, especially businessmen and women, are in rushes and want to get in and take off" as soon as they get the keys to the car, he said. "They expect that the car has already been inspected — every little ding ... around the car has already been spotted and duly noted and placed on some type of inspection sheet. A lot of people don't feel like it's their responsibility before they get in and take off. They feel that's the responsibility of the rental car company." As a way to protect yourself, consider it your responsibility too and be as picky as the car company is capable of being. This is a good time to take photos as well.
The best time to start your photo album, however, is when you return the car. Don't get hustled out of doing a thorough return inspection. I take photos. Harriman takes video, and he notes that the metadata on the photo or video shot with, say, an iPhone, that tell the time, date and often the location can help. A video of a person inspecting the car and saying all is OK could come in handy as well.
When a car company dings you for damages, you can say, "I can prove that I didn't. Can you prove that I did?" It may be like money in your pocket — or, at least, not out of your pocket.
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