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'I Didn't Damage the Rental Car!'

How willing would you be to hand over the keys of your new car to a total stranger? You’d probably be somewhat reluctant. Likewise, it’s not unreasonable for a car rental company to want to protect an investment worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Sure, some folks aren’t as careful with rental cars as they might be with their own. But even people who claim to have rented cars without incident are saying that certain car rental companies have tried, sometimes successfully, to hold customers responsible for damage to vehicles—even when customers deny that anything happened to the car while in their possession.

I regularly receive letters from AARP members stung by unreasonable damage claims by car rental companies. Typically, the renter swears the vehicle was fine when she returned it. The rental company disagrees. Several weeks later, the customer opens her credit card statement to find that she has been billed for damage to the car. It’s her word against the company’s, even if she has the time and money to fly back to vacationland to fight the claim.

How can you avoid getting hit with a repair bill for damage that isn’t your fault? First of all, make sure you’re insured. No matter how careful you are, stuff happens. If the rental car is scraped by a shopping cart in a supermarket parking lot, you’ll be held responsible. Fortunately, many credit cards and insurance policies cover you when you rent. Check yours. If you’re not covered, I recommend taking the rental company’s add-on policy.

However, having insurance won’t keep you from being blamed for dings and dents that didn’t happen while you had the car. At this point, there’s more at stake than proving who’s right or wrong. An errant claim can have negative effects on your personal insurance rate or even on your credit score.

Your best defense against getting hit with an unexpected fix-it bill is to give yourself an extra five minutes at rental and return time to take a few pictures with your digital camera or camera phone.

Before driving away, stand back from the car about six feet to get a clear shot of each side, the front and back. Take as many pictures as you have time for; it’s not like you’re wasting film. Be sure to take close-up shots of any existing blemishes, dings, or dents. Shoot close-ups of the bumpers and undercarriage, too; rental agents look closely at these areas. Get some snaps of the glass. A chip in a windshield can easily expand into a crack that will require the whole thing to be replaced. Even a small paint chip can be expensive to fix, so take your time and pay attention to the details. It's better to argue with them up front about the ding than on the back end, when they hold you responsible.

Finally, before you pull out of the lot, quickly test the air-conditioning unit and other systems. Regular readers of my magazine column will know that one rental company tried to charge a reader more than $600 for rock damage to an air-conditioning compressor on the underside of the car. (In the end, the company admitted they were not sure when the damage occurred.) The little-known fact is that most car rental contracts make you responsible for any vehicle damage or failure that occurs while you’re in possession of the car. This includes the air-conditioning system, windshield wipers, drive train, and even the lights.

When you return the car, repeat the picture-taking process. The photos may save you hundreds of dollars and many hours of unnecessary aggravation. This is especially important if you’re dropping the car off when the rental office is closed and no agent is available to sign off on the return. Fine print in car rental contracts often states that you are liable for the vehicle until a representative of the rental company actually takes possession of the car. That means that the vehicle could be damaged or stolen even after you’ve arrived home and you’d still be on the hook for the loss. The best bet is to have an agent inspect the vehicle with you when you drop it off, and make sure you get her initials on the drop-off receipt.

After your trip, download the pictures to your computer and keep them for at least six months. Keep and file away your copy of the rental agreement. Damage claims often arrive in the mail weeks after renters have gone home. Defending yourself against a car rental company—weeks later and thousands of miles away—can be difficult, unless you’ve got the pictures to prove your case.

If a car rental company should call with a claim that you know is not your fault, here’s what you need to do:


1.    Ask for specific information about the damage, including pictures. Ask when the damage was discovered and by whom. Take good notes, including the name and number of anyone you speak with. (Don’t tell anyone yet that you have your own pictures.)


2.    Let the company know you are disputing the claim. However, do not be adversarial or angry. You will get more helpful information if you keep your cool.


3.    Notify your credit card company that you are disputing the claim; some rental agreements allow companies to bill you for damage without even asking your permission.


4.    Review the information the company sends you about the claim. Send a copy of the drop-off receipt and any pictures you have supporting your side of the claim.


5.    Even if you aren’t really willing to fly back to vacationland, tell the rental company you will be on their doorstep, have lots of free time, and are willing to fight the claim as long as it takes.


Faced with your proof, your documentation, and your commitment to fight…most rental companies would rethink a questionable claim.