As a frequent car rental customer, Parker Mann has endured countless sales pitches for optional insurance. But recently, the hard sell efforts have crossed a line, he says.
"The latest gimmick is to give the customer a false choice with the question, 'Do you want the full insurance or the basic?' -- the implication being that the insurance was required," he says. "I've heard this line essentially word-for-word from three agents at two rental companies in the past year."
Just in case you were wondering, insurance is an option on practically every car. Asking which policy a customer wants implies it's mandatory.
Even when Parker pointed that out, he got some pushback.
"One agent in Phoenix wasted over 15 minutes of my time twisting my arm, citing unending exaggerated horror stories about what could happen to those who didn't buy the insurance," he says.
I asked Bob Barton, president of the American Car Rental Association (www.acraorg.com), if there was a standard for presenting information about insurance in the car rental industry. There isn't.
How about the insurance, which is thought to be the most profitable part of the rental car transaction? That's nonsense, he said.
"Think of it this way," he told me. "If someone buys a loss-damage waiver and is involved in an accident and the car is totaled, it [costs] you less than $100. Without the [insurance] you lose a $25,000 car."
Some states also limit how much a car rental company can charge for insurance. New York, for example, caps a collision-damage waiver policy at $9 per day, which is hardly enough to cover even a small ding in the rental, according to Barton.
"Car rental operators will tell you that the bottom line will show that the amount of insurance sales never equals the collision repairs expense," he says. "No profit there."
If insurance is hardly profitable, then why push it? Numerous car rental insiders have told me that they're evaluated based on how many optional extras are sold with the car, so maybe insurance is just one part of the company's overall strategy of earning so-called "ancillary" revenues from a car.
And since there are no industry standards, how they sell them is up to each agent.
I'll never forget the intrepid car rental employee in Anchorage who, when I turned down the optional insurance, showed me large photographs of uninsured cars that had been damaged on the Alaskan roads.
"This could happen to you," he warned.
I said I'll take my chances.
Doing a little homework may be the best way to avoid falling for such aggressive pitches.
"It's always helpful when a consumer knows before renting a car what his or her credit cards might cover or own insurance coverage is and if it transfers to the rental vehicle," says Laura Bryant, a spokeswoman for Enterprise (www.enterprise.com).
It's one thing to play word games or use scare tactics when trying to sell insurance, but quite another to lie. But that's what Fran Hoshiko claims happened to her when she rented a car in Las Vegas recently.
"The attendant asked if we wanted the insurance," she remembers. "We said 'no,' then signed on the mobile unit."
When she got home, she realized she'd been charged for insurance. A closer look at the form she signed showed that she'd acknowledged the purchase by signing the handheld device.
"We should have checked our receipt before leaving the garage," she says.
True. But we should also trust a car rental company to give us what we ordered. And to tell the truth.
Christopher Elliott is the author of the upcoming book "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. You can read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at email@example.com.