By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 11/13/2006 6:42:55 PM ET 2006-11-13T23:42:55
TRAVEL TROUBLESHOOTER

Q: I recently rented a car in Denver through Advantage Rent-A-Car. More than a month after I returned the vehicle, I received a notice from the company that it charged me $75 for an unpaid parking ticket.

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This is the first I’ve heard of a ticket. There was nothing placed on my windshield or elsewhere on the car.

I contacted the issuing authority and a representative explained that I could dispute the late fee by mail, since I had received no notification of my parking violation. In the meantime, Advantage charged $75 to my credit card — $20 for the ticket and $55 as a late fee.

It also included the following charming footnote: “If this item is charged back or disputed, this balance may be placed for collections with all applicable late, process and collection fees.”

There’s just one problem. According to the City and County of Denver, Advantage has not paid my parking fine.

What is my recourse? I feel quite vulnerable to this company, which says it appreciates my business and doubtless really means it, since they claim an authority to keep on billing long after service was delivered.
— Mary Ann Stewart, Lawrence, Kan.

A: Someone should have told you about the ticket. It was the city of Denver’s responsibility to make you aware of the penalty, and Advantage’s responsibility to pass the word along to you. But someone dropped the ball.

Did the police officer that issued your ticket forget to attach it to your windshield? Or did Advantage fail to tell you about the ticket in a timely manner?

Here is what is clear: You ended up being broadsided with a bill for $75 and a threat to take you to a collections agency if you didn’t pay up. I couldn’t have said it better myself: that’s just charming.

In retrospect, I would have considered disputing the charge rather than approving it. You should be dealing directly with the agency that issued the ticket, and not a third party.

Would your credit rating get dinged? Probably not. I’ve spoken with people who handle collections for car rental agencies, and they tell me that an amount that small would rarely go to a collections agency. It’s possible, but from what I can tell, rental agencies would prefer to spend their energies pursuing customers who owe more than the cost of dinner for two at a decent restaurant in Denver.

To be fair to the car rental companies, uncollected parking tickets are a huge issue. Ultimately, the rental firm is responsible for paying them, and that can add up to a five-figure liability, even for a small rental location. But I’m confident you wouldn’t have been part of the problem, since you tried to pay for this ticket the moment you found out about it.

I contacted Advantage on your behalf and asked it to have another look at your record. It showed a “unilateral” failure in customer service, according to Advantage spokesman Monte Ramey. Advantage apologized for the way in which your case was handled, promised to improve its procedures and processes to ensure it didn’t happen again, and refunded $55, the entire amount of your late fee.

Christopher Elliot is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. E-mail him at chris@elliott.org, or troubleshoot your trip through his Web site, http://www.csr.elliott.org

© 2006 Christopher Elliott ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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