How to get a $400 cleaning fee on your car rental removed? Like this

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Hertz gave Vincent Iannacci a most unpleasant surprise at the end of his recent car rental: a $400 cleaning fee.

Knowing that he’d returned the vehicle in pristine condition, Vincent assumed Hertz had billed him in error. But when he tried to get the cleaning fee removed, the car rental giant told him there was no mistake. In fact, a company representative explained, employees had snapped photos of cigarette butts smashed into the vehicle’s carpet. As a result, the $400 cleaning fee would stand.

Now outraged, Vincent, a life-long nonsmoker, intends to fully defend himself against this false accusation. He says no one smoked in his rental car, and he refuses to let the cleaning fee stand.

Vincent is hoping our advocacy team can help him fight this battle. But will photos of the offending cigarette make his case impossible to successfully mediate?

Renting a car with Hertz to visit Mom before the holidays

In early December, Vincent planned a trip to visit his 90-year-old mom in rural Ohio for the holidays. He would need a rental car for the journey, so the Hertz Gold member went to the company’s website. Soon he found a great $140 estimated rate for the seven-day rental and quickly confirmed the reservation.

Pleased that the well-publicized car rental shortage hadn’t impacted his plans, Vincent let his delighted mom know he would soon be on his way.

“I had a really enjoyable trip visiting my mom,” Vincent recalled. “And I had no problem with the rental car at all. Everything went smoothly.”

That is until after he returned the rental car to Hertz. Then everything went sideways.

Hertz: $140 plus a $400 cleaning fee is the total for this car rental.

Vincent says on the last day of the rental, he drove the car into the return lane at the Hertz location.

An attendant took a look at the car and checked the gas. He took the keys from me and said everything looked good. I asked for a receipt, but he told me that Hertz would email the receipt to me shortly.

Assuming all was in order, Vincent left and headed home. It wasn’t until the next day that an email alerted him that everything wasn’t looking good at all. Hertz intended to charge his credit card an additional $400 as a cleaning fee for the car rental.

I couldn’t believe it. I opened up the email, expecting to see something around $140 for the final bill. But what I saw was a final charge of $551! And when I looked at the itemized bill, it said that Hertz was charging me a $400 “cleaning fee – smoking.” I don’t smoke. I never have and my mother doesn’t smoke either. When I returned it, the car was clean, so I figured this was a mistake.

But when Vincent spoke to the staff of the Hertz location, he received another shock. The manager told him that the cleaning fee wasn’t a mistake. He said that his team had found evidence that smoking had taken place in the rental car.

“He told me that his team had found a smashed cigarette on the carpet of the car,” Vincent reported. “I couldn’t believe it. Then it became clear that I was involved in some kind of car rental scam, and I had no intention of paying a phony cleaning fee.”

“I have never smoked in my life! How can I be charged a smoking fine?!”

Seeing that he would get nowhere with the staff at the Hertz branch, he gave up that battle. Then following the guidance I offer in my article about escalating a customer service complaint, he sent his request for help up the corporate chain.

I have never smoked anything in my life. During the rental period, the only other person in the car was my 90-year old mother. I took her to get her COVID booster. She does not smoke. When I protested the charge [with the local Hertz branch], they accused me of [lying]. I reiterated that I do not smoke and have never smoked and there were never any cigarettes in the car.

I have been a Hertz Gold member for almost 20 years, utilizing Hertz for business and leisure travel. Hertz is the required car rental agency for business travel by my employer. For the past 5 years, I have regularly utilized this particular location, 3-4 times per year, for leisure travel to visit my family and always had great cars and fine customer service. This situation is very upsetting and frustrating to me. Please remove this cleaning fee from my American Express card. This is a mistake!

Unfortunately, Vincent did not receive the response he was expecting as a long-term loyal Hertz customer.

Hertz: “A refund of this cleaning fee is not warranted on this car rental.”

Soon, Vincent received a message from the corporate resolutions department. Hertz would not refund the cleaning fee because, according to the local branch, the rental car had not been returned “In the same condition as rented.”

Hertz told this nonsmoker that he left cigarette residue in his car rental.
The cleaning fee is valid, and a refund is not warranted” on this nonsmoker’s car rental.

Attached to the email was a close-up photo of a cigarette butt and some tobacco on a carpet.

The car rental company claimed to have found a cigarette in this nonsmoker's vehicle. This photo shows a butt on a floor board. But is it this renter's car?
This $400 cigarette butt. Does this photo justify the cleaning fee Hertz charged Vincent after his car rental?

Vincent stared at the photo — a complete fabrication, according to him. Now he knew he needed additional help to defend himself against this attack.

Is this car rental cleaning fee valid?

Our team receives many requests for help each week from travelers blindsided by surprise charges.

From embarrassing damage fees at hotels to inexplicable pillow thievery accusations by a 2-star motel, I’ve seen it all. But one of the most common complaints we receive comes from hotel and car rental customers who get hit by smoking charges. And many of these travelers swear they are nonsmokers and that the company is involved in a scam. In the past, we’ve been able to prove that some of these businesses are conducting unethical cash grabs. 

But as we don’t personally know all the consumers who contact us and can’t vouch for them, these cases are nearly impossible to mediate successfully.

However, there are some ways to investigate these cases. One of them is to study the metadata attached to the photo of the “evidence.” This information will tell us when and where the photo was taken.

When I received Vincent’s plea for help, I was wholly underwhelmed by the photo provided by Hertz. First, it’s a close-up, so there is no way to determine what kind of car this is – or even if it is a car. But also there was no metadata attached since it was just a screenshot of a photo sent to him. Curious.

What does our advocacy team’s shenanigan’s detector say?

If you’re a regular reader of our site, then you know that I have a (self-proclaimed) well-honed shenanigans detector. And in this case, I got a strong sense that Vincent was telling me the truth. He said he wasn’t a smoker and had never been. He was just visiting his elderly mom for Christmas. But to prove his case further, he sent me official medical records to confirm that he has been a nonsmoker for as long back as his current doctor’s records go. He also provided a compelling summary of why there was no way anyone was smoking in his car rental.

Hi Michelle,

1. I have attested to my personal physician that I have never been a smoker. The earliest record I have is from 2013; see attached. Why would I attest that for more than 8 years so that I could smoke in a Hertz car in 2021?

2. My employer requires that to avoid a health insurance penalty, I also attest to them that I am a nonsmoker. I did that for the time I held that insurance up to 2018, when I was forced to switch to my wife’s employer’s plan. See attached benefits attestation.

3. My personal health condition includes ********* ******. Why would I smoke with such a condition? I can provide those records if needed to support my statements. 

4. My father was a smoker, and I never liked it in the house. He had two heart attacks, the first at age 50, the second at 74, which killed him. With that history, I never wanted to start smoking.

*Note: I’ve removed Vincent’s health condition for privacy reasons. 

I was convinced that something had gone wrong at this local Hertz location.

And since we have a helpful executive contact at Hertz, I hoped her team could look at this case. I wanted to see the metadata of that photo. I believed it would prove beyond a doubt that this cleaning fee was accessed in error.

Asking the executive of Hertz to have a closer look at this case.

Hi ****,

We have a Hertz customer here, Vincenzo Iannacci, who says he was charged a smoking fee after his rental. He’s hoping that we can plead his case that this is a mistake because he’s never smoked in his life. Hertz sent him a photo of a cigarette butt on the floor of a car to justify the charge. But he believes this must be a case of mistaken identity. He has provided his medical records to prove that he doesn’t smoke. Would your team be able to have a look at his complaint and see if possibly his rental was confused with another?

 … that photo of the cigarette butt isn’t really compelling to me since it’s just a close shot of butt on a carpet somewhere. Maybe we could look at the metadata on the photo and see when it was taken and where?  Thanks!

Michelle to the Hertz executive team

And very shortly, Vincent’s battle came to a successful end. He was vindicated. The executive team reviewed all the evidence, including his attestation and the photo, and came to the same conclusion as I did. (I never did get to see the metadata.)

Michelle!

In case you didn’t see the voice message I forwarded to you, Hertz called and said they would refund the $400!!

Not sure what you did or said, but that’s fantastic news!

Thank you so much!!

Vince

The voicemail explained that there seems to have been some mistake at the rental location’s level. The representative of Hertz confirmed that Vincent is a valued Hertz customer and will continue to be so. The cleaning fee has been removed from the invoice for this car rental, and Hertz reversed the charge.

And with that, we can close this case. But here is the information you need to know to avoid a similar car rental fiasco of your own.

Here’s how to make sure you don’t get hit with a surprise cleaning fee on your next car rental

Our team receives a steady stream of complaints from consumers hit with surprise cleaning fees, smoking fines (even for nonsmokers), and mysterious damage charges. It seems that the longer the pandemic drags on, the more willing companies are to extract cash from their customers in sometimes dubious ways. That means that you, the consumer, must make absolutely sure that you preemptively protect yourself from being an easy target.

Here are a few things you can do before, during, and after your next car rental to make sure you don’t get hammered with surprise fees.

  1. Pay attention to what you’re signing.
    When you arrive at the car rental counter, you may be fatigued from a long day of traveling, but it’s essential to be attentive to what you’re signing. Read the entire contract. Many consumers contact us after their rental to complain they’ve been charged hundreds of dollars extra for insurance and other items they didn’t want. Unfortunately, the contract typically shows that these customers agreed to those add-ons at the counter. This is also where you’ll acknowledge that the car rental company can charge you extra for cleaning fees. Do not sign your contract until you’ve reviewed all parts of it.
  2. Take photos and videos of the vehicle – including the inside.
    Before driving away with your rental car, you’ll want to inspect the vehicle carefully. And take photos and videos. Typically, the car rental companies will tell customers that any nick or scratch smaller than a quarter can be ignored. Don’t believe it. Pay particular attention to any blemishes or dents on the car. You must document even the slightest bit of damage with a company representative. Get that employee’s name. Do not take a car off the lot if it has significant damage or has a strong or unpleasant odor. If you must accept the vehicle slated for you (because of a lack of rental cars), ask a supervisor to sign off on the oddities.
  3. Fill up tank, empty garbage, vacuum if necessary.
    A good habit to get into when renting a car is to create a routine. Always give yourself plenty of time to return your vehicle. Racing to the airport with no time to spare before your flight can lead to returning a car which is a prime target for all manner of extra fees. If you run out of time and forget to fill up the gas tank, that’s a hefty fee. If you fail to clean out the trash, you could get hit with a giant cleaning fee. And, of course, if you fail to return the car on time, you’ll start accruing additional hourly rates that are quite high. If you make sure to allow a half-hour buffer to your return time, you’ll have time to fill the gas tank and, at the same time, remove all debris from the car. If necessary, you can usually vacuum the car at most gas stations for about $1. Unless, of course, you would prefer to let the car rental company charge you $400 to do it for you.
  4. Take more photos and videos on return.
    Before handing the car back to the rental agency, take additional photos to document the vehicle’s condition. Be sure to take wide shots to show the car’s location at the time of this photoshoot. Don’t forget to take a picture of the gas gauge showing you returned it full. And ask the attendant to look the car over and smell the interior. Take note of that employee’s name. You’ll be a less likely victim of car rental shenanigans if the staff attendants see you paying attention to details. Hurried and flustered travelers who throw the keys on the seat and start running for the terminal will find it particularly hard to defend themselves against surprise charges later.

How to get a cleaning fee removed from your car rental bill

These tips will only work if the car rental company billed you by mistake. If you return your rented vehicle filthy or with the telltale odor of smoke, you owe the cleaning fee. I’m afraid this guidance isn’t for you.

These are the steps you need to take to get a cleaning fee refunded if the car rental company charged you in error.

  1. Contact the car rental company in writing.
    These types of billing errors are very hard to fight unless you’ve taken the steps I’ve outlined above. Calling the company after it has billed you a cleaning fee will rarely result in a reversal of the charges. Your first step is to contact the car rental agency in writing and ask for the incident report and evidence that supports the cleaning fee. If you need help finding a company contact, you can Just Ask Meera. She’s Consumer Rescue’s research valet and is always ready to find you the information you need. 
  2. Review the evidence and share your own.
    Hopefully, at the drop-off location, you took photos of the condition of the rental car (both inside and out). You can refute the car rental company’s evidence with your own photos and videos. The good news is that most mobile phones automatically timestamp your media files so you can prove exactly when and where you took the images. Keep your communication with the car rental company short and polite. It’s important not to include a lot of extraneous information. If you’ve got evidence that shows the vehicle in great shape when you returned it, the car rental company should remove the charge. But if not…
  3. File a complaint with the attorney general in the state where you rented the car.
    Unfortunately, an increasing number of car rental locations are independently operated franchises. That means that the corporate office may be reluctant to step in and investigate your complaint since they’re not directly involved with the operation. And, as we’ve seen with franchised hotels, not all owners are entirely honest. If the corporate office rebuffs your request for help, you can report your experience to the attorney general in the state where you booked the car. An official letter from the AG’s office is often all that is needed to nudge a company to remove false charges. Here’s how to find any state’s attorney general.
  4. Consider filing a credit card chargeback.
    Filing a credit card chargeback can be tricky. As I point out in my article about how to use a credit card dispute correctly, if misused, this tool can backfire in spectacular ways. Before filing a chargeback, a consumer must gather all their documentation to support their case. It must be straightforward and easy to understand since credit card companies do not conduct in-depth investigations. And it’s critical to remember that even if a consumer wins a credit card dispute, the car rental agency can still pursue the debt elsewhere. Many major companies, including Hertz, are known to ignore credit card disputes but send the debt to collections if the charge is reversed. This can cause a terrible hit to the former customer’s credit score. I say former customer because if you’re sent to collections, you’re also put on the Do Not Rent List. For all of these reasons, you may wish to skip the chargeback, which will probably only lead to more headaches. Instead…
  5. Ask the Consumer Rescue team for help.
    Unlike in a credit card dispute, the Consumer Rescue team will thoroughly investigate your complaint. If the facts are on your side, we’ll take your case and fight your battle with you. Although these cases are difficult to prove, if you’ve followed our guidance this far, then you’ve probably got the evidence we need to mediate your case successfully. You can submit your problem to our advocacy team here, and we will get back to you ASAP. Remember, we’re always here to help! :). (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 an investigative consumer reporter and advocate, author, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker and her expert guidance has been cited in Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on tv helping fix a situation. :) Michelle is also an Ombudsman Columnist for The Points Guy and 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. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and exploring the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.