Although this happened in Canada, this is no surprise to me. I used to work for a company which had a corporate contract with Budget Rent A Car. I once returned a car to the Los Angeles International Airport location, and they charged me substantially extra for damages so minor that they were not even worth mentioning. Fortunately, my employer at that time paid for the rental and the damages — which were not even caused by me, by the way — but that does not render the practice any less egregious.
Here is my advice to you whenever you rent a vehicle — no matter which car rental company you choose:
First, check with your credit card company to ensure that they include rental car insurance as part of your contracted benefits. If for some reason a rental car company claims that you are responsible for damage to the car, it is better to have them challenge the credit card company than your insurance company, which could possibly raise your vehicle insurance premiums as a result — even if the damage was not your fault.
Walk around the car and inspect both the interior and exterior thoroughly. This includes bumpers, grilles, tires, seats, floor mats, the carpeting under the floor mats, the glove compartment, lenses for the lights, trunk — everywhere on and in the vehicle.
If you see a minor scrape, rub it with your finger or cloth to ensure it is dirt and not a scratch. If the scrape is indeed a scratch, record it either by writing down the location of the scrape on the vehicle, or take a photograph of it — or, preferably, do both.
If the car is deemed a no-smoking vehicle, ensure that there is no tobacco odor or ashes in the ash tray — you could be charged with a cleaning fee. Look for stains or other potential damage.
Before pulling out of the parking space, test the equipment. Ensure that the lights, turn signals, radio, windshield wipers and fluid, and other electronics operate properly. This is for your safety as well as your protection from being a victim of fraud.
Report any anomalies you find to the rental car attendant before you leave the facility, and ensure that the attendant records it in your contract, as well as initials the findings.
If the attendant refuses for any reason to officially record and acknowledge the damage — which has never happened to me — either report it to the supervisor of the attendant or patronize another rental car company. Regardless — whatever you do — do not leave the facility with the car, because once you do, you are now responsible for the “repairs.” It will be your word against the word of the representatives of the rental car company when the time for confrontation comes.
While the vehicle is your responsibility, take care to obey all traffic laws. Try to park in places where the possibility of the car getting “dinged” by a careless fellow driver can be mitigated or eliminated. If you find damage caused by someone else and you are certain as to who is the perpetrator, record the license plate of the vehicle in question and call the police to file an accident report. Take insurance information from the suspect, if possible.
Lastly, do not allow yourself to be coerced into being a victim. If you believe you are being scammed by the rental car company, record every detail you can regarding your experience to either contact the corporate office of the rental car company, the police, a consumer advocate organization — or even the media, if necessary. You can also dispute the charges with your credit card company.
Keep in mind that some car rental companies are more stringent than others. I find renting from National Car Rental to be far more of a pleasant experience than Thrifty or Dollar, which I attempt to avoid. Aside from a rental car issue in Cyprus which consumed the better part of a day, I also usually have no issues renting from Avis.
Your car rental experience will be uneventful most of the time. However, all it takes is one time to be scammed — and if that happens to you, the cost in terms of time, effort and money can potentially be enormous. Do yourself a favor and be fully prepared before your rent your next vehicle. A good place to start is to go to the Car Rental Programs/Partners forum on FlyerTalk and visit the sub-forums of the individual car rental companies to read what has already been posted and ask for advice.