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Surprise! The hotel says you broke a $500 TV. Now what?

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

A Canadian Super 8 hotel blindsided Mirko Dulic, accusing him and his boys of damaging the TV in their room. After checking out, the franchise helped itself to $500 from Dulic’s bank account without even a shred of documentation to support its accusations. When pressed to provide some concrete justification for the $500 charge, the management went silent.

And Dulic went straight to our advocacy team for help.

This case serves as a warning for travelers who patronize franchise hotels. As our case roster shows, some unscrupulous owners seem to have adopted a consumer-unfriendly business model. Under the guise of a hotel damage fee, the unchecked post-stay pilfering of guests’ debit and credit cards is an alarming problem. Our advocacy team is on a mission to put an end to these unsubstantiated charges.

And we’re doing it one case at a time. Here’s another troubling tale.

Blindsided by a $500 charge from the Super 8

Dulic booked a one-night stay at the Super 8 in Saskatchewan, Canada. His visit was uneventful. The problem came two days after he and his boys checked out. He received an alert from his bank. The Super 8 had processed an additional $500 through his bank card.

I immediately called the Super 8. The lady accused me of damaging the TV.

I couldn’t believe it. We never even touched the TV! I tried to speak to the manager. Every time I called the receptionist, she gave me a different answer about his whereabouts.

I left a message with my contact number, but he didn’t return my call.

Dulic said that the next day when he continued to call the hotel, he spoke to someone he believed to be a supervisor. This woman told him that the hotel charged his card as a result of a broken door lock. Dulic pointed out that it was the TV that he had been accused of damaging. She said that both items were damaged.

Then the “supervisor” asked if Dulic had been at the local football game. Dulic explained that the entire purpose of the trip was to take his boys (8 and 17) to the event.

“In reply, she said, ‘Oh well, you know what that means,'” Dulic recalled. “She was insinuating that football fans are all out of control and would easily cause hotel damage.”

Dulic again asked to speak to the manager or owner, but he was still unavailable.

Can the police get this hotel damage fee refunded?

Realizing the hotel staff had already convicted him of causing the room damage, Dulic abandoned his conversation with the supervisor.

He then called the police and reported what he believed amounted to theft.

After this, I called the local police and explained the problem. The police contacted the hotel and spoke with the manager. He told the police that the TV has a crack in the corner.

Then the manager called me. He was laughing when I said that we did not break the TV. Then I asked him why did the supervisor say that the door lock is broken. And I asked him why didn’t he mention that to the police. After a pause, he told me that it was probably someone else who broke the door lock.

What can I do? We have three different stories in two days!

Dulic said that the manager also brought up the football game. He mentioned that Dulic’s team lost — insinuating that he might have damaged the TV in anger. Dulic said he continued to tell the manager that his family had not touched the TV at all during their stay.

And then the manager gave Dulic some new information. Now he said the damaged TV had a diagonal crack across the screen. Frustrated, Dulic requested a photo of the TV and an incident report.

He’s still waiting.

What’s going on with all of these hotel damage accusations?

Regular readers of my column know that these surprise hotel damage fee cases are on the rise.

Even as I write this article, there are several new cases in progress here at Consumer Rescue.

We have no shortage of hotel damage fee cases involving a variety of outlandish accusations.

But there are striking similarities in these cases.

1. The hotel involved is a franchise

Looks really can be deceiving when it comes to the franchise hotel industry. Travelers need to be wary. The friendly banner of a familiar hotel brand that you have come to trust may entice you to book. But the reality is that “Independently owned and operated” means that the owner may not share the same values and expectations of customer care that the parent company holds.

And in all of our hotel damage fee cases so far, we’ve seen a growing level of apathy from the managers involved. With emails and phone calls being wholly ignored, professionalism has been lacking.

This situation leaves a consumer advocate to wonder: Who is holding these franchise owners accountable to a standardized business model that includes basic training in customer service and care?

2. Most used a debit card (or used their bank card as a credit card)

Another similarity these surprise hotel damage fee cases share is that most of these travelers used a debit card. (See: Why was I charged for stealing a stove from my hotel room?)

In the United States, the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA) protects credit card-using consumers against merchants who initiate unauthorized transactions.

Merchants are not permitted to make unauthorized charges to a consumer’s credit card. If they do, the consumer has the muscle of their bank behind them to reverse the charge. The credit card company will then conduct an investigation. And the merchant must provide documentation that supports the charge. Otherwise, the reversal becomes permanent.

Unfortunately, the FCBA does not protect consumers who use a debit card. And so, in the case of a post-stay hotel damage fee, it is quite difficult for the consumer to fight the charge.

It’s also important to note that a bank card with the symbol of Visa or MasterCard (as was the case here) may not necessarily qualify for the protection of the FCBA. So before plunking down a debit card to use as a credit card, consumers should check with the issuing bank for the terms and conditions of that card.

But in this case, things were a little murkier since Dulic and the merchant are both Canadian. In Canada, the protections afforded to credit and debit-card-using consumers are less concrete. The Principles for Consumer Protection: A Canadian Framework uses subjective terms to describe a consumer’s rights:

Principle 6 covers unauthorized or inadvertent sales transactions. The Framework provides that consumers should not be liable for amounts billed to them for unauthorized transactions and should be given a reasonable time in which to cancel a transaction that was inadvertent. Furthermore, it invokes credit card issuers to make reasonable efforts to help consumers resolve complaints with vendors in the event of non-delivery or unauthorized transactions.

Although this hotel damage fee was undoubtedly an unauthorized transaction, Dulic’s bank ultimately told him it could not directly help. The bank recommended that he file a small claims lawsuit against the Super 8.

Turning to our advocacy team for help

I had just finished writing about another of these troubling cases when Dulic’s plea for help arrived.

Understandably, he was quite upset. $500 is a lot of money to have removed from your account with no prior warning. His paper trail showed that he had emailed the hotel multiple times asking for evidence of this damage. But he received no response.

“I had promised to take my children to a football game one day,” Dulic explained. “This was it. I don’t want to pay for something that I am not responsible for. We have never experienced such a terrible situation where we were robbed by the hotel that we stayed in. Can you help me?”

Of course, every hotel owner should have the right to charge a guest who causes damage to their property. That fact isn’t in dispute. However, extracting $500 from a guest without an incident report or photo of the damage can’t be an acceptable business practice.

In today’s world, almost everyone has a cell phone that takes pictures. There is no reasonable explanation for a hotel being unable to provide a single photo of a damaged TV. And an incident report signed by a responsible employee would lend credibility to these hotel damage claims. So why was this hotel resistant to showing Dulic any proof of the damaged TV?

Where’s the proof of this $500 hotel damage, Super 8?

To see what might be going on here, I called the Super 8 and asked to speak to the owner. He wasn’t available to speak to me either. So I asked for his email address. The lady who answered the phone had great difficulty finding an email address for the owner. She finally gave me a general Super 8 email for the hotel.

I composed my email to the owner and hit send. Here’s an excerpt:

Our team has been investigating a disturbing trend in which franchise owners are charging their customers for a variety of things, post-stay with no incident reports, proof or documentation to support these charges. This practice is not customer-friendly. $500 is a significant amount of money for your hotel to take from a guest without even a receipt for the damage or an incident report.

If you have documentation of this guest causing damage in your hotel, please forward it. Without proof to substantiate your charge of $500, this should be reversed immediately.

My email came right back to me. Whether on purpose or by mistake, the employee had given me an incorrect email address. But it is interesting to note that Dulic also was given incorrect email addresses for the owner.

Back at the Super 8, I spoke to the same front desk lady. Now she gave me a different email address which I soon discovered was also invalid. On the third go-round with this employee, she finally gave me an address that stuck. But I never heard back from the owner.

Asking Wyndham for help

Wyndham Hotels & Resorts is the parent company of Super 8. And since it was clear this owner didn’t intend to give me the courtesy of a response, I took the case to our executive contact at Wyndham.

The executive resolution team at Wyndham looked over Dulic’s complaint and soon had good news.

Hi Michelle,

After reviewing internally, we’ll be refunding the charge for the TV as a goodwill gesture on behalf of the brand. I’ve spoken with my colleagues on our corporate customer care team, and they’ll be reaching out to the guest this afternoon to initiate that process.

Wyndham executive contact

And so, in the end, it would appear that the owner may not have responded to the Wyndham executive team either. But for Dulic, this damage fee will be refunded, and his $500 will soon be back in his account. And he’s happy to have this frustrating experience behind him.

What can you do to protect yourself against a surprise hotel damage fee?

  • Visit review sites: Before booking an unfamiliar hotel, make sure to visit some review sites. By cross-referencing a few of these sites, you should be able to get a general idea of the hotel’s reputation. I head straight to the poor and terrible reviews, which usually tell me more about a hotel than the shiny ones.
  • Do not use a debit card as a form of payment. When you use a debit card, you’re giving the merchant access to your bank account. We receive many pleas for help from consumers who find their accounts overdrawn after a merchant charges a surprise fee.  And remember, you don’t have the FCBA protection when you use a debit card. The safest option is always a credit card.
  • Take photos and videos of the state of your hotel room: Finally, based on the recent surge of complaints we’ve seen, you might consider taking a photo or video of your room before you leave. Your cell phone can easily capture the state of your room at check-out. You might need that photo later.

Ask the Consumer Rescue team for help

And don’t forget, if all else fails and you get hit with an unexplained and unsubstantiated hotel damage fee, you can contact our advocacy team. We’re always here to to do our best to rescue a consumer from a tricky situation. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, 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.