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Sneaky fee alert: rental car 'top off'

You know all about rental car gas roulette: Either pay in advance for gas you'll never use, or bet that you'll have enough time to fill up the tank before you drop off the car. You might even know that some companies insist on a receipt as proof you've filled the tank if you take the second option.

But now, there's a third possibility: Pay up regardless. Some rental car locations are charging an extra fee to consumers who return their cars with a full tank. This "top-off fee" is being charged even if consumers present evidence they have that the tank is full. In other words, you're dinged if you do and dinged if you don't.

"I couldn't believe it," said Steven Dentali, who was charged the fee in October after renting a car from Dollar Rent A Car in Manchester, N.H. "I said to them, 'You're telling me I'm penalized no matter what? There's no way around me having to pay something?'"

That's precisely what the rental car agreement said. Here's the exact wording he received in his e-mail confirmation:

"Gasoline Policy: Vehicle must be returned with full tank or local refueling charge applies. If car is returned full a $2.00 top off fee will be applied."

When Dentali started asking questions, he said he was told that the fee was being test-marketed by Dollar at select locations in New England.

Dentali demanded a refund and was told he had to talk with a manager, who in turn told him to call Dollar's corporate offices. He did, and said he was promised a refund. But the $2 never arrived.

Dentali, who wins the Red Tape Perseverance Award for this month, made another phone call and sent an e-mail to Dollar. Finally, his complaint landed on the right desk. On Dec. 26, he got a late Christmas gift via e-mail from the rental card company, albeit a measly one:

"I am unable to advise you as to whether or not this is a permanent policy or what the purpose is for it, but in an effort to regain your confidence in Dollar Rent A Car, I have requested a refund check in the amount of $2.16 to be forwarded to you from our accounting office," wrote an employee of Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group, Dollar Rent A Car's parent company. "Please allow up to three weeks for processing and mailing."

'Not a widespread practice'

Chris Payne, a spokesman for Dollar Thrifty, said the location that assessed the "top-off" fee was a locally owned franchise, which is allowed to set its own policies. Corporate-owned Dollar locations don't charge the fee, he said.

"Franchisees are given some discretion when it comes to the operation of their own facilities, and occasionally they will have different fees," he said. "This 'top-off' fee appears to be something they have enacted. I can tell you that it is not a widespread practice among Dollar locations."

Rental car companies have been playing games with gasoline prices for years. In fact the games are so common that we don't even question them any more. Why, for example, does the price of gas double between the time you rent the car (and are offered the chance to pre-pay for gas) and the time you return the car?

Fortunately, rental car firms don't get away with everything. Just a few months ago, Budget Rent-A-Car got got the attention of the Federal Trade Commission after the rental company instituted a policy requiring receipts from customers who returned their cars full of gas, and dinging those who returned without receipts with $5 to $10 fees that the FTC said were poorly disclosed.

The top-off fee represents a new zenith in fee creativity. For Dentali, it was just too much to bear. Even though he figures all those wasted lunch hours, faxes, and phone calls ultimately cost him about $200 to get his $2.16 refund, he thinks the fight was worth it.

"My parents went through the Depression and taught me what a buck is worth," he said. "And I have a strong sense of what's right and what's wrong, a sense of fairness. …You catch a company sneaking a small dollar amount like that on your bill, and if you don't challenge it, they'll keep getting away with it."