When Paula Robbins picks up her rental car at the airport, an agent tells her not to worry about the small nicks and scratches on the vehicle. But when she returns the car, the company wants her to pay for the damage. What should she do with the $319 bill the company has sent her?
Q: We recently rented a car from Enterprise Rent-A-Car at Long Island MacArthur Airport in Islip, N.Y. When we picked up the car, we pointed out some nicks and scratches to a representative. She assured us we had nothing to worry about.
We drove the car to our son's house in East Hampton and parked it in his driveway and did not use it again until we returned it to the airport. We didn't even use a whole tank of gas, even though we had prepaid for it.
When we returned the car, another Enterprise employee pointed out the nicks and scratches and claimed we were responsible for them. The representative we had originally spoken to when we rented the car was not available.
Two weeks later we received a bill for more than $319 to cover the cost of the repair and a note that the Enterprise employee we had rented the car from did not remember me pointing out the damage. We do not know what to do. Can you please help? -- Paula Robbins, Boca Raton, Fla.
A: When someone tells you not to worry, you should worry.
That's especially true when you're renting a car. More companies are giving their returned vehicles a meticulous once-over and slapping customers with repair and loss-of-use charges, even when the evidence that the renter did it is circumstantial, at best.
I'll get to the particulars of your case in a second. But first, let me tell you how you could have avoided this mess. Normally, you'll have two opportunities to inspect a rental. The first is when you're handed the keys -- at which point you can walk around the car and check for dents and dings. The second is when you pass through the security inspection at the exit, and an agent checks your rental agreement and ID.
So if the first agent says, "Don't worry, be happy" and declines to initial that little form where you note any damage on the car, that's fine. Just ask the guy at the gate to note the damage. Another tip: Take pictures of your car with a digital camera or phone. Make sure they include a time-stamp, so that you can prove the pictures apply to your rental.
Do that, and there's no way your car rental company can stick you with a bill. Assuming, of course, you returned the vehicle in the same condition you found it in.
All of which brings me to your case. I checked with Enterprise, and I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that you weren't being charged for any nicks. But there were a few scratches -- "significant scratches" on an almost brand-new vehicle is how an Enterprise representative described it. "But probably what caught their eye on the return check-in was that the bumper was detached," she added in an email, which included several pictures of your damaged rental car.
Someone from Enterprise should have taken the time to review the scratches with you and explain that you would receive a repair bill. Based on your account, it sounds as if there was a lot of finger-pointing, but no clear understanding on your part of the damage recovery process.
Car rental companies have a well-deserved reputation for surprising their customers with bills they don't deserve. But in this case, the only fault I can conclusively find with Enterprise is that it left you confused about how to go about paying for a car that appears to have been damaged while you rented it.
Enterprise withdrew its $319 repair bill.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2009 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.