By Travel columnist
updated 10/26/2005 5:20:18 PM ET 2005-10-26T21:20:18

There's a dent in Janice Zvaleny's rental car, and Enterprise wants her to pay $500 for repairs -- even before they get the car fixed. Just two problems. First, Zvaleny thinks the dent isn't her fault. And second, the rental contract doesn't say anything about paying upfront for damage to a vehicle. Should she fork over the money or not?

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Q: I recently rented a car from Enterprise in Pittsburgh. When I returned the vehicle, an employee pointed out a small ding on the rear passenger door. It was hardly visible, and I honestly believe that it was already there when I picked the car up. I didn’t hit anything, and no one hit me — at least not while I was in the car. But I can’t prove it.

Before they even sent me an estimate, Enterprise billed me $500 for repairs. They said the Enterprise contract allows them to do that, but I can’t find that on any of the documents I signed. All it says in the contract is “I will pay the owner the amount necessary to repair the vehicle.”

I was told that if it costs less to have the damage fixed, I will get a refund.

I have no problem having the vehicle fixed after the estimate has been done and turned in to my insurance company. I feel that charging me beforehand is extortion. After thinking it over and talking with a friend who is a lawyer, I stopped payment on my check. I’m going to let the insurance company work this out with Enterprise. Any advice?

— Janice Zvaleny,Pittsburgh

A: Finding out what your rights are as a car rental customer isn’t easy. There’s no contract of carriage to consult as there is with an airline; in fact, each car rental company has its own contract that varies by country, state and even city.

I searched Enterprise’s Web site in vain for a boilerplate contract that could tell me if you are right or wrong. That’s too bad, because such disclosure could only benefit the company and its customers.

I think it’s wrong to charge a customer for damage before sending a repair bill. I wouldn’t call it extortion, though. It’s more like a forced loan.

If you’ve ever checked into a smaller hotel in Europe, you probably have experienced something similar. The innkeeper asks for your passport, supposedly for safekeeping. But it’s also an insurance policy: If you don’t pay your bill, you’re not going anywhere.

I would have refused to loan Enterprise $500. I also would have vigorously disputed the damage claim if I thought it wasn’t my fault. A grievance like this should be taken up with the manager on duty; if that fails, you can appeal to the corporate level.

The way to avoid this kind of problem is to carefully check the car before you drive off the lot. If you had done so, you would have noticed that there was, indeed, a small ding on the passenger side of the car.

Yes, that’s right: It’s not your ding.

I asked the company to review its records, and when it did, it discovered the dent existed before you rented the car. Christy Conrad, an Enterprise spokeswoman, said that because you returned the vehicle on a Saturday, it was more difficult for the agents to check the car’s history. To its credit, Enterprise is refunding the money it charged you.

I’ve had many conversations with Enterprise during the last few months about customer grievances. I believe the company makes a genuine effort to provide the best customer service - and I think it usually meets that goal. But occasionally it doesn’t.

One measure of a company’s commitment to customers is the number of clients who are happy with its product or service. But another is how that same company responds when a customer is unhappy.

When it comes to the first measure, I think Enterprise is doing very well. When it comes to the second, it may need a little work.

Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Send him a note or visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story. Want to sound off about a story? Try visiting Elliott's forum.

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