By September 23, 2004 column
Special to msnbc.com
updated 1/10/2005 3:15:48 PM ET 2005-01-10T20:15:48

It's been six months since you rented a van. But what's this? A $486 bill for a chipped windshield? And if you don't pay up right away, the car rental company is threatening to send your name to a collection agency. Given the choice between paying for damage she didn't inflict and having her credit rating destroyed, one exasperated traveler asks for help. Find out if she's liable for the windshield - and how you can prevent this from happening to you.

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Q: I rented a minivan from Payless last January. I had declined all waivers of insurance they offered me because I knew my Visa covered the rental. When we dropped it off at the airport, an associate looked around the van and said we were good to go.

I received a letter from Payless in July saying that a claim for damage to the vehicle I rented from them was being submitted to their agent.

The next day I received a typed letter from Subrogation Management Team with an itemized invoice for $486.51. It included an estimate to fix a chipped windshield, a credit-card authorization form, a copy of my rental agreement and Passenger/Cargo Van Inspection form, which I never recall signing with a "chip windshield" on it.

On the side note of that form, they had written: "Research - 'No windshield damage two prior rental contracts - New on 0000491'."

I wrote back disputing the claim.

In August, I received a letter saying they "meticulously" investigated the circumstances and with careful consideration, Payless would continue to pursue the claim. Again, they attached a credit card authorization form with their letter.

Two weeks later, I received a final notice in red bold ink: "THIS IS YOUR FINAL NOTICE. THE AMOUNT YOU OWE FOR THIS LOSS IS $486.51. Do not take this final demand lightly as the action this office takes will be solely determined by your actions. Payment is due by 8/31/04 or your account will be immediately turned over to a NATIONAL COLLECTION AGENCY."

Payless hasn't billed my credit card for this, which is strange, because they have my number - and if they do, they know darn well I will dispute the charge.

I have no problem taking responsibility for paying for my mistakes or damages I incur, but this one smells awfully fishy. Have you ever heard of a car rental agency trying to collect for this sort of claim six months after the fact?

-- Mercedes Cadiz

A: No, I haven't. Normally, a vehicle is inspected immediately after its return. If there's any damage, you should hear from the car rental company within a month or less.

But half a year? That's way too long.

I have a theory about your windshield. Sometimes cracks like this start out small. A pebble might hit the glass and leave no noticeable mark. But the impact starts a chain reaction that slowly consumes the entire pane.

The windshield is easy to repair at first (it costs about $50). But if it isn't taken care of, the crack spreads too far and the entire window has to be replaced.

I know about cracks all too well, unfortunately. My father bought a used car recently with a sticker strategically placed over a tiny chip. By the time he discovered the damage, it was too late and he had to buy a new windshield.

Your car rental company probably theorized that you were the one who put the initial chip on the windshield.

Here's how you might have avoided a situation like this. If you have any doubts about the condition of the car when you return it, ask a manager to take a look at the vehicle. Get that person to sign off on the rental.

I've done this before when I had a question about a nick on the bumper of my rental. I asked if I'd be billed for it. I was told I wouldn't. I made sure that I had the name of the manager and then left for the airport.

And guess what? No bill.

I contacted Payless, and much to its credit it responded immediately. It took another look at your case and decided to drop its claim. A representative you spoke with explained that the franchise you had rented from was experiencing a lot of turnover in January, which led to erroneous claims like this being filed.

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