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Travel Troubleshooter: A $481 Bill for Rental-Car Damage I Didn't Do

How could this claim for nearly $500 in rental-car damages have been avoided? Plus, find out how readers helped this traveler win her case against the car rental company.

When Mary Dampier returns her rental car to Alamo (, she believes it is undamaged. But the company begs to differ, and now it is threatening to refer the case to a collection agency. Is there any hope?

Q: I'm trying to resolve an issue with Alamo and have not been able to communicate directly with anyone at the claims department. Now they're threatening collections and legal action. I'm in the process of buying a house and can't afford a ding on my credit rating.

Here's what happened. I rented a car from Alamo in San Francisco for three days recently. It was parked most of that time and the vehicle was definitely not damaged during my rental.

When I arrived in San Francisco, I checked in at the rental Alamo rental desk. I was directed to select any of the cars in a certain row in the dimly lighted, multi-level parking lot. There was no attendant to assist me. The keys were in the car. I selected the only Toyota.

I walked around the car for a visual inspection, noticed that it was slightly dirty in front, but I saw no dents or dings. I considered having them run it through the car wash again, but I had an appointment to get to.

I drove the car 81 miles during the weekend rental period. I parked carefully, pulling in facing a wall or building. No one could have impacted the car from the front during the time it was parked. When I drove it, I didn't run over or hit anything.

When I returned it to the airport, the agent walked toward the car from the front and said to me as he approached, "What did you hit with the car?" I thought he was joking. He pointed out what appeared to be a crack in the lower portion of the front grill. I didn't see it right away -- I had to get down low to view it. It would have been easily missed in the parking garage where I picked it up.

I disputed the damage on the spot, telling him I didn't hit a thing and that this damage had to have been pre-existing. But I received a letter from Alamo's damage recovery unit for $481. Can you help? -- Mary Dampier, Coronado, Calif.

A: Alamo should have given you the keys to a clean car and offered to inspect it before you left the airport. But you could have also prevented this with a few easy steps.

Always take a picture of your rental car with a cellphone or digital camera. If possible, ask an employee to walk around the vehicle, noting even minor damage. If no one is available, then make notation of the damage and ask an employee to acknowledge the car's condition before you leave.

I reviewed the correspondence with Alamo and the photos of the car you were alleged to have damaged. I posted the pictures, along with the letters, on my website and asked readers for their feedback. They noted several problems with your rental, including the amount of the damage claim (which was suspiciously close to your $500 insurance deductible) and evidence that the damage it showed you in the photographs weren't from your vehicle.

Although Alamo's parent company, Enterprise, insists that damage claims such as yours are not a moneymaking scheme, stories like yours do make customers wonder. If Alamo was really concerned about the state of its cars, it would vigilantly photograph the vehicles before every rental and conduct a thorough inspection -- not wait until the end to point out every little ding, dent and scratch.

I contacted Alamo on your behalf. It dropped its claim.

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, or e-mail him at