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I left my rental car at the airport, but now it’s missing!

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

Maureen Heller recently received a shocking message from Budget Security about a missing rental car. The letter accused Maureen of failing to return a Nissan Sentra that she had left at the Detroit airport weeks earlier.

But with no receipt to prove she returned it, will Maureen be on the hook for this missing rental car?

Maureen’s case is a reminder that the rental car industry is rife with dangers for consumers. From surprise damage charges to unneeded insurance and now to missing cars — it’s imperative to document everything during your rental. And that includes ensuring that you get a receipt to prove you’ve returned the car at the end. Otherwise, like Maureen, you might be in for a giant financial headache that could have easily been avoided.

Maureen’s bizarre experience began when she booked a 10-day prepaid car rental through Costco. The $405 cost included all taxes and fees. She would pick the car up in Royal Oak, Mich., and return it to the Detroit Airport.

All went well during the rental. On July 22 she returned the car to the Budget location at the Detroit Airport as planned.

“The Budget agent accepted the car,” Maureen recalled. “She checked the fuel level and scanned the license plate. She told me I didn’t need a return voucher. Then we took the shuttle to the airport and flew home to Palm Beach.”

For the next week or so, Maureen had no indication that anything was amiss with this rental. But on July 31 she received a disturbing message from Budget’s security department.

The email, a copy of which Budget also sent by certified mail, accused Maureen of failing to return the Sentra. According to the letter, the missing rental car was still in her possession, and the company wanted it back immediately. Of particular concern to Maureen was the information from Budget’s legal department at the bottom of the letter.

Budget: “Failure to return the vehicle…may result in criminal proceedings.”

The threat of criminal proceedings stunned Maureen. And she suddenly realized the full implications of her failure to receive a return voucher for the vehicle.

Budget says this customer's rental car is missing!
Budget: “We’re required by law to notify you that failure to return [your rental car] may result in criminal proceedings against you…”

Where could that missing rental car be?

As soon as Maureen recovered from the initial shock of Budget’s accusation, she picked up the phone. She hoped a quick phone call could clear up this terrible misunderstanding.

Maureen explained that she had returned the vehicle as planned. Budget soon let her know that it had found the missing rental car. It was located right where Maureen said she had left it — on the Budget lot at the Detroit Airport.

Maureen breathed a sigh of relief and assumed she had averted a car rental disaster.

She assumed wrong.

This Budget location intended to charge Maureen big bucks for “extending” her rental to July 31. Despite all available facts suggesting a simple scanning error, the company charged her American Express card an additional $700. And Maureen began a 5-month battle to retrieve her money.

You should always insist on a receipt when you return a rental car

After Maureen’s call did not lead to the end of this calamity, she gathered all her evidence. Crafting an email to Budget to prove her case, Maureen carefully followed all of the instructions we offer in Consumer Rescue’s guidance about resolving your own consumer problems. She kept her letter short and polite and stuck to the facts. She felt confident that she could soon convince Budget of its mistake.

But Maureen received a disappointing response to her first request for Budget to remove the additional charge. A representative thanked her for contacting the company but seemed to have glossed over the information in Maureen’s letter. This representative asked for her return receipt for the car (among other things) to prove her case.

Maureen sent a follow-up reiterating that she never received a return slip. And so began an endless interchange between Budget and its frustrated customer. Finally, after the following response, Maureen realized that she was getting nowhere with the rental agency.

We have reviewed your case. Unfortunately, we are unable to find any discrepancies in our system regarding the return date. Please send a copy of the rental car return slip for further review.


No discrepancies? Just days before, Budget had said the rental car was missing. There were obvious discrepancies in the record of this rental. But notwithstanding facts, Budget wasn’t budging. It insisted that Maureen had kept the car right up to the moment the car was found on the lot on July 31.

Disputing the charge for this missing rental car

The Fair Credit Billing Act allows consumers to dispute credit card charges that involve billing errors. A chargeback should only be used as a consumer’s last line of defense. To correctly utilize the protections of this act, you must first attempt to resolve any disputes directly with the merchant.

Unfortunately, we receive many complaints from consumers who have filed chargebacks too soon or under the wrong circumstances. It always ends poorly for the consumer.

But, in Maureen’s case, she had made multiple attempts with Budget to resolve her problem. And she had provided supporting evidence. She had included a confirmation of her flight home on July 22. But Budget wouldn’t accept the confirmation email as proof. It wanted a copy of her original boarding pass. And she didn’t have that either.

Maureen reached out to Delta Air Lines. She hoped Delta could give her a copy of her original boarding pass.

“Please help. This is a serious charge from Budget and an expensive one,” Maureen pleaded to Delta. “Budget is requiring a copy of my boarding pass.”

Unfortunately, Delta was unable to provide a copy of Maureen’s original boarding pass.

Then Maureen sent Budget copies of her American Express bill that showed she had made charges in Palm Beach after her flight home from Detroit.

Despite all her attempts to prove her case, the $700 charge remained on her credit card. It was time to ask her credit card company for help. She opened a dispute and decided to let American Express and Budget battle it out.

A lost credit card dispute

But then American Express let her down as well. Budget fought the chargeback and she lost the dispute.

Maureen was astounded. No one seemed to be looking at the evidence that she had provided that supported her case. She filed an appeal of the chargeback with American Express, which similarly failed.

In a last-ditch effort to emerge as the victor in this war, Maureen sent her request for help to our advocacy team.

Our advocacy team will examine all the facts

By the time Maureen’s complaint reached our helpline, this struggle had consumed her life for five months.

The facts in Maureen’s lengthy paper trail gave strong evidence that she had returned the car on time. As we’ve seen with other car rental customers, it appeared that a simple scanning error occurred when she returned the vehicle to the Budget lot on July 22. Maureen’s big mistake, of course, was not insisting on a rental return receipt.

In Maureen’s paper trail was her American Express bill, which showed that she was making charges in Palm Beach on July 25. She also provided a copy of her Delta Air Lines itinerary showing that she was scheduled to fly home on July 22.

Lastly, a fact that could not be overlooked was Budget’s belief that the car was missing until July 31. But as soon as Maureen received Budget’s demand for her to return the car she called from Palm Beach. At that time, she alerted the company that she had returned the vehicle as scheduled. And the missing rental car was “found” on the Budget lot while Maureen was sitting in Florida thousands of miles away.

Budget should have resolved this case on July 31.

Contacting Budget about this missing (and then found) rental car

I reached out to our executive contact at Avis, the parent company of Budget. She asked her executive resolution team to review Maureen’s case. Unfortunately, I began to receive the same kind of response that Maureen had received previously.

Incredibly, the executive resolution team asked me for Maureen’s return receipt.

So I tried again. I pointed out that the missing car rental return receipt was the crux of the problem. And I explained my suspicion that this entire case was the result of a simple scanning error:

On July 31, Mrs. Heller received the letter from Budget alerting her that the car was missing and had never been returned. Alarmed, Mrs. Heller called Budget immediately and reported that she had returned the car as scheduled on July 22. It is apparent that your Budget team then went looking for the vehicle and found it on the lot exactly where Mrs. Heller returned it nine days prior. However, Budget billed Mrs. Heller for the nine days the car was “missing” on the Budget lot. Mrs. Heller was home in West Palm Beach from July 22. That car was apparently sitting on the Budget lot, unscanned between July 22- July 31. The facts of the case point to a simple scanning error by an employee.

I attached Maureen’s American Express bill with the highlighted charges in Palm Beach after July 22. Those charges proved that she wasn’t in Detroit during the last week of July while this car was “missing.”

Finally, an apology and a full refund

And that did the trick. Soon Maureen received an apology from Budget and a full refund of the overcharges:

We have reviewed your rental charges with our Operations Manager.  Based upon the information you provided in the case notes and the findings of our internal investigation, we have adjusted your bill to reflect the correct return date.  A credit has been issued to your American Express account.   We apologize for the inconvenience this matter has caused.  Please be assured that your experience was not typical.  A copy of our report has been sent to the appropriate manager for corrective actions. 

Thank you for giving us this opportunity to be of assistance to you.  We look forward to serving your future car rental needs. 

Maureen is relieved that this battle is over. And one thing is for sure — she will never again trust an employee who says a return receipt isn’t necessary. For Maureen, and hopefully, for our readers too, a return receipt is a requirement.

How you can avoid missing rental car accusations

Missing rental car accusations are not particularly common. But Maureen is not the first consumer to contact us after being accused of failing to return a rental car — and I suspect she won’t be the last. To make sure you don’t find yourself in a similar situation, there are a few things you can do.

  • Always get a return receipt: Often travelers are in a hurry at the airport when it’s time to return the car rental and they don’t wait for that return receipt. For many reasons, this is a mistake. It’s critical to factor in the time you’ll need to properly return your car rental and allow a representative to go over the car and print your receipt.
  • Returning after hours? Take a photo:  Sometimes it’s unavoidable that your rental car must be left at a location without an attendant. Make sure to take a photo of exactly where you left the car. You’ll also want to document its gas level and condition.
  • Keep your boarding pass: Until you have confirmation of your car rental’s return, it’s best to keep your boarding pass. You might need it later to help prove that you didn’t abscond with a rental car. (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.