By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 11/13/2006 6:42:18 PM ET 2006-11-13T23:42:18
TRAVEL TROUBLESHOOTER

Q: I recently rented a car from Dollar Rent A Car at the Denver airport. I returned the vehicle in the same condition in which I picked it up.

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Almost three months later, I received a letter claiming that I’d had an accident with a bill for $1,061 in damages, $125 for loss of use and an additional $100 for “administration.” Two black-and-white pictures are attached; both time-stamped nearly a month after my rental.

I have a witness who flew in with me, was with me for the period of time we were in the Denver area, and left with me to return to Dallas that will vouch for the fact that we did not have any accidents or cause any damage to the car, and that it was returned as received.

I have heard about travelers who get charged for scrapes or scratches that were not on the car when it was returned. But this time, they have gone too far. Can you help?
— Don Jancauskas, Dallas

A: It’s true that car rental companies have become much more aggressive about pursuing customers who damage their vehicles. But when they go after someone, they’d better have the right driver.

Here’s what should have happened. When you returned the car, an employee should have checked you back in, noting the mileage and gas tank status, and giving you a final bill. That is the time when any damage to the car needed to be noted — not weeks later.

The photos Dollar showed you with a timestamp nearly a month after your rental should have been enough evidence for it to drop your case.

And it was.

I checked with Dollar and it seems that when you contacted the company, pointing out that the picture had a suspicious date on it, the company decided to drop its case. But because of a clerical error, it continued to send you those threatening letters.

“The agent closed the case but then forgot to stop what we call ‘the strategy’ — the letters asking for payment,” explained Joy Punaro, a Dollar spokeswoman.

How could that happen? Punaro says the software Dollar used to handle damage claims didn’t automatically put the brakes on “the strategy.” An agent would have had to close the claim and instruct the system to stop sending the letters in two separate actions. That didn’t happen.

If you suspect that you’re being billed for damage that you’re not responsible for, there are several steps you should consider taking. First, contact the car rental company in writing, firmly (but politely) disputing the claim.

If the company insists on continuing with its claim, don’t give up. Send a strongly worded reply that requests evidence, including repair records, and stating in no uncertain terms that you intend to fight the claim, even if it means going to court. If you’re innocent, don’t roll over and play dead when you get a form letter from your rental company.

Dollar dropped its claim against you (this time for real) and offered you a $100 voucher for a future rental as an apology.

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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