The Hertz car rental agency at Barajas Airport in Madrid is billing me nearly $500 for damage to a rental car. The evidence? Photos that are time-stamped six hours before I returned the car and a blatantly altered document attesting to the car’s condition.
One of the photos is at left, showing the time stamp of 13:17, or 1:17 p.m., on Sept. 6, 2010. Here’s the damage claim from Hertz that states — correctly — that the car was returned at 19:04, or 7:04 p.m., on that date. (I also have a photo of the car taken early in the afternoon in Ponferrada, four hours north of Madrid.)
And I have to say, I’m a little embarrassed that my salvation from these bogus charges will probably rest as much on the mistakes the Hertz franchise made in supporting its false claim as it will on the measures I took to protect myself from it.
Here’s perhaps the biggest mistake: the Hertz franchise apparently thought I wouldn’t save the paperwork. See its copy of the “Addendum and Statement of Vehicle Condition” that seems to show me having signed off on the claim of damage to the vehicle when I returned it. But I have a carbon of the original, showing that same undated signature on the form without the claim of damage that was later added to it. That’s because I signed it before I took the car off the lot, and signed nothing on returning the vehicle.
I do understand, as any travel blogger worth the name should, that spurious claims of damage to rental cars have been on the rise in the United States and abroad. And I did take some precautions, which included photographing the car before I took it off the lot.
My photos show, among other things, side mirrors shaped differently than the scratched mirror casing in the photographs Hertz sent. With those photos, the time discrepancy, the obvious attempt to add the damage information over my existing signature and other inconsistencies in the Hertz claim, I expect to persuade American Express not to pay the claim.
But there is more I could have and should have done to arm myself with evidence that I did no damage to the car. And rather than go through every detail of my claim, which is not likely to be as fascinating to you as it is to me, I’d like to focus on those precautions. (You can see my minutely detailed deconstruction of the Hertz claim here, if you’re really interested.) As a result, I hope that other travelers will do a better job of protecting themselves than I did.
First, what I did right:
- I photographed the car from every angle before taking it off the rental lot at Barajas.
- My companions and I also examined the car for scratches and dents, and took close-up shots of those that were obvious.
- I kept every receipt and piece of paper related to the rental.
- When I received the first notice from Hertz of a damage claim, I immediately asked customer service at Hertz to investigate.
- At the same time, I immediately disputed the amount claimed for damage with American Express, which launched its own investigation.
Here’s what I didn’t do right, but you can:
- I should have photographed the car thoroughly when I returned it. Tired? In a rush? Do it anyway.
- I should have been more careful about where I signed the form. When I rented the car, I signed as instructed under the “in case of damages” section, which should not have been signed until I returned.
- I should have insisted that the attendant who checked the car back in sign a receipt stating that it was undamaged. He said we were all set, and I have a witness. But written proof is much better.
- I should not have assumed that renting with a big name like Hertz would protect me from bogus charges. A Hertz customer service representative in the United States tells me the company will investigate further, but that it can’t compel a franchise to drop a claim.
Consumers shouldn’t have to take all these steps to protect themselves from car rental agencies. Unfortunately, the temptation to prey on travelers seems to be too much for some of them to resist. More on that later.