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Ask George Mayo about car insurance, and he'll tell you that his State Farm (www.statefarm.com) policy covers rentals. He's certain of it. And he's also certain that when he rented a car from Avis (www.avis.com) in Nashville recently, he declined the optional insurance.

Insurance isn't required by law when you rent a vehicle in the United States, but it's a good idea. That's because you don't want to pay $30,000 for a new car if you're in an accident, or even a few hundred bucks for a fender bender.

Car rental companies have an incentive to not only sell you their optional Loss Damage Waiver (LDW) and Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) products, which can be highly profitable, but to oversell it. To that effect, they often incentivize their agents to push these extras, which can double the cost of your car rental, to gullible customers who may already be covered.

And sometimes, they go too far.

Mayo believes the agents in Nashville "tricked" him into signing a contract to buy the extra insurance.

"The agent tried to get me to purchase liability insurance," he remembers. "I explained that I already had liability insurance through my State Farm policy and showed him the copy of rental agreement from the Internet where I declined all auto insurance. The agent had me sign a piece of paper indicating that I refused the Avis insurance."

When he returned the car, he found an additional $251 for the full insurance package -- which he'd declined -- on his final bill.

Apparently the form he thought he was signing, verifying he was turning down the insurance, was actually a form accepting the collision-damage policy.

"I complained, but was told that I had signed an agreement to purchase the full Avis insurance package at the rental counter," he says.

After some haggling, Avis agreed to cut his bill in half. But Mayo was still upset, so he contacted me. I asked to see a copy of his rental agreement, but he didn't keep it. The agreement would have shown exactly what he'd accepted.

Mayo asked Avis to send him a copy of the rental agreement, and it mailed him an empty envelope.

I refer to this as the "sign here" scam. You ask a company for something verbally, and it then slides a rental agreement under your nose that has you paying for something else. In the old days, when car rental companies used cheap line printers to generate contracts, you could hardly read what you were signing, which led to all kinds of confusion -- the kind of confusion car rental companies were frequently accused of taking advantage of.

Another common trick -- and this applies to Americans traveling overseas -- is the foreign-language contract. Your really don't know what you're agreeing to, and the rental agent knows it. (Always ask for a translation to avoid this problem.)

But mostly, the scam perpetuates itself because customers don't read the rental agreement they sign. Had Mayo reviewed the paperwork, he might have avoided this whole unpleasantness.

Fortunately, he had filled out an online form specifically declining the insurance, and could show Avis proof that he was already covered. I contacted the car rental company on his behalf, and it agreed to refund his $251.

"In the future I will have to look closely at what I sign and not take the word of the rental agent as to what I am signing," he told me.

I can't blame rental companies for making sure their cars are covered, nor can I fault them for trying to earn a profit. But sometimes I wonder if they're trying too hard.



Christopher Elliott is the author of the 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 chris@elliott.org. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.