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Hit with fake rental car damage charges? Here’s how to make them go away

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

Could you be accused of causing costly damage to your next rental car even if you didn’t do it? Several hours after returning his Budget rental car Derek Melber found out the answer to that question. That’s when an employee emailed him with the surprising news that the driver’s side window of the vehicle was shattered.

Despite Melber’s best efforts to convince Budget that he didn’t damage the rental car, the company charged him for repairing it. 

Melber says it wasn’t him who shattered that window, but he thinks he knows who did. He’s hoping Consumer Rescue can prove the rental agency has wrongly accused him. And of course, he wants Budget to refund the nearly $500 repair charge it billed to his credit card. 

But without any proof of what the rental car looked like when Melber returned it, that might be impossible. 

Or maybe not.  Let’s break this case down.

A two-day car rental without incident?

In mid-October, Melber booked a two-day car rental via the Budget website at the Kansas City location. Picking up the car at just before 3 p.m., he looked over the vehicle and confirmed it was in good shape. 

“I didn’t take any photos because the rental car was fine – no damage,” Melber explained. “I didn’t expect any problems. The Budget attendant handed me the keys and I left.”

Melber says he then drove two hours east to Columbia, Missouri. There, he parked the rental car until it was time to return it two days later. 

The drive in the Budget rental car took just two hours.
Melber drove the Budget rental car straight to Columbia and parked it. Two days later he returned the vehicle to Kansas City without any problems.

When Melber arrived back at the same location where he had picked the rental car up less than 48 hours earlier, he says the employee on duty examined the vehicle.

The Budget attendant walked around the vehicle and then opened the door and sat down in the driver’s seat. He turned the rental car on, checking the mileage and gas level – and then he handed me a receipt.

Derek Melber

With that receipt in hand, Melber assumed that would be the last he would hear from Budget concerning this rental car. 

It wouldn’t be. 

Budget: “You caused significant damage to this rental car.”

Less than two hours later, Melber got a giant surprise. Now Budget had “discovered” that he had caused significant damage to the rental car. 

Derek Melber,

The vehicle you rented was returned with driver-side window damage. According to the terms of the rental agreement, you remain responsible for any damage that occurs to the vehicle before a complete inspection is performed by Budget.  When the Budget vehicle is returned it will receive an initial damage inspection by an authorized Budget employee.  The vehicle receives a full inspection once the exterior is washed, interior is cleaned, fluids and tires checked, etc. – all of which occurs in the proper lighting of our maintenance bays. Please fill out the attached accident report.

Budget branch manager

The message went on to say that Budget would be automatically charging Melber’s card on file for the damage. 

“I couldn’t believe it,” Melber recalled. “I instantly knew this was a scam. There was no damage to that rental car when I returned it.”

Suddenly, Melber realized he’d made a critical error by not taking photos of that rental car when he returned it. 

Here’s the “proof” of damage to the rental car

Melber asked the Budget location to send the photos of the damage to the rental car, which the company sent the next day. 

The photo outraged Melber even more. It showed an almost completely shattered window on the driver’s side.

I didn’t break that window! There would be no way for me to drive the rental car with that type of damage. Certainly, this significant problem would not have been overlooked by the employee who got into the driver’s seat and inspected the vehicle when I returned it. I’m not responsible for damage caused by your employees after I hand it back.

Melber trying to reason with the Budget manager

Unfortunately, no amount of reasoning with the management at this Budget location changed its position. In fact, several days later, in a follow-up email, the company attached an undated receipt for the repairs and alerted Melber it was charging his card $411. That invoice included “loss of use” and administrative fees in addition to the window repair. 

An invoice from Budget detailing the charges for the damage to the rental car.
Budget Rental Car: “You are responsible for all damages, regardless of fault.”

Not sure where else to turn for help, Melber started searching through the internet. That’s when he found another rental car customer’s plight that I had written about. In that case, Thrifty had billed one of its customers for damage to a beat-up rental car that probably shouldn’t have even been on the lot in the first place. 

That customer had undeniable proof that he hadn’t caused any damage to his rental car – before-and-after photos. When he contacted Consumer Rescue for help, it was easy for me to prove his case because of that evidence. 

But Melber had no proof at all. He had failed the first lesson in Car Rental 101: always document the condition of the vehicle.

I was going to need to look for other clues that Melber didn’t cause this car rental damage.

Asking Budget to take a closer look at this customer’s complaint

It’s true that sometimes rental car customers damage the vehicle. In those cases, the company is correct to expect to receive payment for the lost revenue and repairs. In fact, travelers should be aware that any damage to a rental car in their possession is their responsibility.

That’s why it’s critical to make certain you always have proper car insurance coverage before driving away with the vehicle. As one Points Guy reader found out, if you don’t and your rental car is vandalized or damaged in any way, you’ll be on the hook.

But equally, no one should have to pay (or have their insurance pay) for repairs to a car they didn’t damage. I believed Melber didn’t break that window. From the photo, it was clearly impossible for an attendant to miss this significant problem.

Rental car damage, broken window, Budget Rental Car damage
How could a Budget employee miss the smashed window on the vehicle?

Unlike in other cases in which the customer had received no receipt, returning the car to a location without an attendant, Melber had communicated with an employee. That Budget representative had inspected the car in a well-lit outdoor lot and had even sat in the vehicle and detected no problems. 

The damage to this car is obvious and significant. Only Mr. Magoo could have missed it.😝

So I asked our Avis executive contact (Parent company of Budget) to have a look at Melber’s complaint. I suggested that this might be a mistake at the location. He sent my inquiry to the local franchise for further review and I soon received a most unusual explanation as to why the employee hadn’t seen the shattered window. 

The reason given defied logic and I was certain then that we were in the middle of some car rental shenanigans

An explanation that defies logic

The explanation that Derek received from the local branch manager in response to my inquiry said that the reason the employee didn’t see the damage was because the windows were all rolled down. 

Dear Mr. Melber,

Based on my review of your case, I found the following information in this email:

The rental vehicle was returned on 10/12/23 at 13:18 with all four windows rolled down. After the vehicle was brought down to the service area to prepare it for the next rental, the windows were rolled up, and damage was discovered. This happened within 15 minutes of you returning the unit.

Budget manager

This response ignited a new fury in Melber. 

I did not have ANY windows rolled down. Obviously your workers damaged the vehicle and then rolled down the windows. 

The employee was in the vehicle and clearly there was no damage when I returned the vehicle. 

I can not be responsible for the vehicle once it is in your care. The car was not damaged at all when I returned it. If this isn’t corrected, I’m going to file harassment charges.

Derek M.

Looking more carefully at that photo, I had a few thoughts to share with this branch manager.

No way for a customer or employee to roll a shattered window

Hi ****,

I have reviewed all the documents and photos that your branch has sent to Mr. Melber. I believe that there has been a mistake by your team in billing Derek for this broken window. 

The evidence shows a shattered window with heavy damage along the side of the glass. Your employees say that the car was returned with all the windows down, which would be unusual in the first place in October in Kansas City, BUT that isn’t the primary problem with this damage claim. The theory that Derek shattered the window and then rolled the windows down and your employees rolled the window back up and that’s how the damage was discovered defies logic. A window with that much damage would disintegrate if an attempt was made to roll it down or up out of the stability of the rubber frame. 

It would appear based on all the evidence that was provided to me that something happened at your location soon after Mr. Melber returned the car — but Mr. Melber is certain he didn’t cause that damage to your vehicle and since neither you nor I were there when the car was returned, I believe we should look at the reality of what the evidence suggests. 

I will be publishing an article about Mr. Melber’s experience with your location and I hope to have a positive and reasonable ending to report.   Thank you for your help sorting out your customer’s problem.

Best,

Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer advocate

Proof that this customer has been a victim of fake car rental damage accusations.
This rental car has significant damage to the window that would prevent it from being rolled down or up.

The good news: Budget will refund the damage charges on this rental car

A few hours after my email, Melber’s battle with Budget came to a successful conclusion. 

Greetings Michelle,

We at Budget Kansas City aim to exceed customer expectations by providing excellent customer service. We have addressed the matter with our claims department, and as a result, we will be closing Mr. Melber’s claim and refunding the full amount to the card on file. 

Kind regards,

***** ****

Budget

Customer Service Manager

And with that, we can add one more rescued consumer to our success files!

How to protect yourself against fake rental car damage charges

Unfortunately, we know that rental car customers getting blindsided by surprise damage charges is not uncommon. If you don’t take precautions before, during and after your next rental experience, you’ll be putting yourself at risk.

Here’s a checklist of what to do to protect yourself from a financial ding from a car rental company.

  • Have a rental car photoshoot (before and after). When I was picking up my last rental car, I noticed a couple photographing their vehicle. When they saw one of the employees looking at them, they apologized. It made me realize that many travelers may not take this simple proactive step for fear of appearances. I’m here to tell you: Do not worry about what people might think as you conduct your car rental photoshoot. You’re being a smart traveler – and guess what? If an employee sees you documenting the car’s appearance before and after, you’ll be less likely to get targeted for fake damage charges later. 
  • Always return your rental car to a human. In the era of artificial intelligence and reduced human-powered customer service, it isn’t unusual for a car rental agency to offer you the ability to pick up and return a vehicle without having any interaction with an employee. This is a mistake. Whenever possible, make sure you hand the keys to your rental car to a person who works for the company and take names. Make yourself known to the worker who is logging in your rental car. The more you learn about the location and its employees, the more protection you’ll have against being hit with false accusations of damaging the vehicle. 
  • Check mileage, gas level and interior. If you’ve read my column for any length of time, then you know car rental customers get zonked with charges for extra miles, gas top-offs and cleaning fees, among other things. You can easily protect yourself against these post-rental zingers by taking a photo of the interior of the car, including the dashboard, with the gas and mileage showing. Of course this assumes that you haven’t damaged the car or returned it in an unacceptable way (See: You should never return a rental car dirty. This is why). 
  • Always, always, always get a return receipt for your rental car. Recently, we’ve seen a disturbing trend here at Consumer Rescue: travelers who return their rental car as scheduled, but find out later that the vehicle wasn’t logged back in for days and even weeks. These startled travelers often receive a notification that the police might be looking for them. If you have a return receipt, you’ll be able to quickly fix this type of “misunderstanding.”

Note: If it is impossible to return your rental car at a time where there is an attendant, it’s critical to take a video of the entire lot showing that you returned the vehicle to the correct location and agency. Also, make sure to show the condition of the interior and exterior of the rental car and note the time of return. 

Why a credit card dispute isn’t the way to fight a rental car damage charge

It is true that the Fair Credit Billing Act protects consumers against fraudulent charges billed to their credit cards. However, filing a credit card dispute in response to accusations that you damaged a rental car, will likely only backfire on you. 

As we’ve seen over and over, all of the major car rental companies are more than willing to send even their most loyal customers to collections and onto the Do Not Rent list as a result of a credit card dispute

Remember, even if you win, a credit card chargeback only ends your bank’s involvement in the dispute. The merchant is still free to pursue the debt elsewhere. The better way to fight a rental car damage charge is by taking the proper precautions to have the ammunition to prove you’ve been wrongly accused if it happens to you.

But if a car rental agency does hit you with bogus charges and you have trouble defending yourself, send your request for help to Consumer Rescue. We’ll be happy to rescue you, too, with our always friendly and always free mediation service. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)

Consumer Rescue

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer advocate, ombudsman columnist, mediator, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in MarketWatch, Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Boston Globe, CBS News, National Geographic, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on TV reporting on a situation. :) Michelle is also the travel ombudsman columnist for The Points Guy and is the former executive director of the nonprofit Elliott Advocacy. During her six years in that position, she resolved thousands of cases for troubled travelers and other consumers. You can read hundreds of 5-star reviews Michelle earned during her service to the nonprofit since 2016 here on Great Nonprofits. She is also a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and traveling the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.