By December 8, 2004 column
Special to msnbc.com
updated 1/10/2005 3:14:34 PM ET 2005-01-10T20:14:34

Car-rental surcharges aren't unusual. Fuel-purchase options or upgrades can add a little extra to the cost of your vehicle. But what if you're billed nearly $800 more than what you were quoted by the car-rental company? That's what happens to Jessica Spiegel when she rents a car from Hertz in Europe. The company insists she ordered optional insurance, but she denies it. Is there any hope for a refund? And how do you prevent this from happening to you on your next rental?

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Q: We rented a car through Hertz on a trip to Europe last summer. When my mother made the reservation, she paid the base charges in advance but refused any additional insurance, since her credit card took care of her insurance coverage.

When we picked up the car in Bordeaux, France, we were asked if we wanted optional insurance. Again, we were very clear that we didn't want it.

We were certain that the Hertz employee understood us. When she handed my husband the paperwork, she said, "Initial here to indicate you don't want insurance." He initialed where she pointed.

But when we returned the car two weeks later, we learned that the part of the contract the Hertz employee had circled - and the place my husband had signed - had actually accepted the insurance.

To make matters worse, when we got back to the States and my husband checked into his bank account, he discovered that the total charges Hertz had quoted him were nearly doubled in the actual amount which had been withdrawn from his account - almost $800.

Hertz insists the charges are legitimate. It sent us a form letter saying that it's our responsibility to read the rental agreement. I agree. But I also think that when the clerk says, "Initial here to indicate you don't want insurance," we should believe her.

What do you think?

-- Jessica Spiegel

A: I think the word of an employee should count for something. If she said you were declining the insurance, you shouldn't have been charged.

What happened to you is disturbingly common. Call it a miscommunication if you want to be diplomatic about it. I've referred to it in previous columns as the "sign-here" scam - particularly when the company tells you afterwards, "tough luck, pay up."

Car rental contracts can be tricky. They're loaded with fine print, and employees tend to rush through processing them, circling several sections and ordering you to either initial or sign as if it's some timed exercise.

When you're in another country, things can get even more complicated. You're probably exhausted after a long flight and dealing with another language, culture and legal system.

You have a right to slow things down. Ask the agent what you're signing. Take the time to read the contract and if you don't understand it, request a translation.

When Hertz reviewed your record, it should have noted that you declined the insurance the first time. It should have also contacted the employee who dealt with you and asked if she recalled the transaction (even though these agents process many dozens of customers a day, they often have surprisingly accurate memories).

That, combined with your own statements, should have been enough to reverse your charges.

"Apparently, there was a miscommunication between the Hertz representative and Ms. Spiegel, causing her to accept a service she was not interested in receiving," said Hertz spokeswoman Paula Stifter.

Other than reading your contract, how can you prevent this from happening again? One of the best ways is to join a car-rental company's frequent-renter program, which allows you to store your preferences in its system. You can specify everything from insurance to fuel-purchase options.

If you ever get stuck with a bill like this, you'll have irrefutable proof that you didn't want the extra insurance.

Hertz refunded the 600.87 euro charge to your credit card.

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