Q: Peter, I rented a car at Reagan Washington airport through Budget on August 5th. When I turned the car in on the 6th, I waited until the attendant looked it over, then paid and left. Eleven days after returning the car, I received a letter saying I was being charged an additional cleaning fee of $69 for pet-hair removal. This charge is fraudulent! There was never an animal in the car. I and my overnight bag were the only occupants of the car. I do not own a pet, and my bag was in the airplane cabin with me, so there was no way pet hair could have gotten on it and transferred to the car. I did not even have anything to eat or drink in the car. I've tried repeatedly to contact the manager of the branch, but he never answers calls, and no one else there seems to be able to do anything. I guess I will have to dispute the charges with my credit card company.
–Alga Vose, St. Louis
A: This is not the first time I have heard of a car-rental company tacking on a suspicious fee long after someone has paid and left the premises. Other readers have written me to complain that they were charged for re-filling the gas tank—even though they had filled it up before they returned the car—while others have said that they were charged for an extra day, even when they returned the car within the specified time frame. Since car-rental firms keep your credit card number on file even after your transaction is complete, there is nothing to stop an unscrupulous operator from adding illegitimate charges and essentially holding your card hostage.
While I don't know whether the cleaning fee assessed to your account was a legitimate mistake or the fault of a duplicitous franchisee, it is surprising that Budget did this even though they inspected the vehicle after you turned it in, and after they gave no indication that the car would need additional cleaning. This tells me that something fishy may have been going on. You did the right thing by contacting the manager directly to see if you could sort it out.
After calling you to offer further assistance in resolving your problem, I also learned that you did eventually reach the manager of the branch, but he was unwilling to remove the charges. You then contacted your credit card company to dispute the charge, and they sided with you and removed it.
The lessons here are twofold: First, when returning a rental car, insist on getting a receipt that states that the car was returned in same condition as it was when you picked it up. If you are really the paranoid type, you can even take pictures of the interior and exterior of the car, in case you fear a dispute like this may arise. And second, you can always elevate the dispute to your credit card company if you don't have any luck getting a refund you feel you deserve.