Eric Johnson returns the keys to his Budget car in a drop box with time to spare. But he's charged an extra day when the car rental company claims he brought the car back nearly five hours later. Who's right? And does Johnson owe Budget anything?

Q: I rented a car recently from Budget ( in Lansing, Mich., and came across something that looks like a scam.

Here's how it works: An employee tells you to just return the keys and paperwork in the off-hours return box. Then, when they get around to processing it, they say you returned it at a later time, and charge you extra.

Pretty elegant way to earn another day on a rental, no?

It happened to me, and to add insult to injury, I still haven't gotten the receipt they were supposed to mail to my home address.

I wrote the time I returned the car -- just before 4 p.m. -- on the paperwork. I turned it in with the keys and now they don't seem to be able to check what I wrote in the paperwork. Or maybe they lost it. Or maybe they don't believe me.

I have my gas receipts with time stamp and an email with time stamp that I wrote to my wife after passing through security at Lansing airport to try to stand by on an earlier flight.

What should I do? -- Eric Johnson, Boise, ID

A: Budget shouldn't have charged you for an extra day. But is this a scam? I'm not sure I'd go that far.

I suggested you contact Budget by e-mail, asking for the evidence you had returned the car late. A representative sent you a terse reply, insisting that "based on the log records," you returned the car at 8:56 p.m., long after you were airborne. Seems to me a simple copy of your flight itinerary would have been enough to clear up this apparent misunderstanding.

I recommended that you appeal this decision, but Budget just sent you another e-mail with virtually the same information, insisting the charge was legit. Obviously, they didn't take the time to read your rebuttal.

Why is Budget being so obstinate?

I don't know, but I have a pretty good imagination. Maybe it was a simple error. If that were the case, then the car rental company would have probably fixed it before you had to contact me. Then again, maybe it was the money. Budget charged you another $25 but was able to rent the car the next day, even though you were paying for that day. Not bad.

The company might want to change its name to "Over Budget" if that's true.

Next time you rent a car, avoid the drop box. Check in with a real person. In addition to potential surprise "late" charges, you'll avoid any possible problem with a late damage claim. When an employee checks the car back in, and signs off on it, you're cleared of any potential claims for dings and dents to the vehicle. When you slip the keys in a drop box, there's no telling.

I contacted Budget on your behalf, and it apologized and refunded you $25.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at

(c) 2010 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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