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Towed car, blown budget

Maggie O’Brien’s purse is stolen while she’s on vacation in South Carolina, and she loses the keys to her rental car. Her vehicle is towed back to the rental location in Charlotte, N.C. Now her car rental company, Budget, wants to charge her $3,551 for a four-week rental. Should she have to pay for a car she never used?
/ Source: Tribune Media Services

Q: I recently rented a car from Budget Rent A Car in Charlotte, N.C. While I was in Charleston, S.C., my purse was stolen, which contained the keys to the car.

I filed a police report and called Budget, asking if they could send someone with a duplicate key. A Budget representative said the car needed to be towed back to Charlotte. I was assured that I would be charged nothing beyond a key duplication fee and towing charges.

Several days after I returned home, I began receiving phone calls from Budget, inquiring about the car. I mentioned the fact that the car had been towed, and was again assured that there would be no extra fees. This happened several times.

Imagine my surprise when I got the bill. Budget charged my credit card additional daily fees for four weeks, for a total of $3,551. I disputed the charge and my credit card company sided with me. But Budget is still trying to collect the money. Can you help?
— Maggie O’Brien, San Francisco

A: Budget has no right to charge you for a car that you’ve already returned, unless, of course, you didn’t bring the vehicle back to Budget.

When you drive a car back to your rental location, the return is easy to verify. An employee signs off on the car and hands you a final bill. But that didn’t happen to you — it couldn’t have. Your rental car was stuck in Charleston, and Budget was 200 miles away. So you “returned” the car with a phone call. And when you do something by phone, it’s difficult to prove, as you have found out.

In retrospect, it might have made sense for you to wait until the tow truck arrived and asked for some proof that the car was being picked up. That may sound a little obsessive, but the alternative — paying thousands of dollars in mystery charges — makes it something worth fretting over.

I checked with Budget to find out what went wrong with your rental. A company representative said the Charlotte location didn’t follow the proper procedures when the car was towed back, and as a result, the return was never recorded in its system. “The car never showed up as actually returned,” said Budget spokeswoman Susan McGowan.

That’s one part of the mystery solved. But if Budget found the car, why the charges? “I’m still trying to get to the bottom of that,” McGowan told me.

Fair enough. So if your car has been found, and Budget acknowledges that it shouldn’t have charged you, then what can you do about that $3,551 bill? Disputing the charge was the right move. You might also consider supplying additional documentation to Budget. A copy of your return plane ticket might be enough to convince the folks in Budget’s collections department to rethink their claim.

Budget dropped its efforts to collect $3,551 from you and, as a gesture of goodwill, promised to send you a voucher for a free rental.

Christopher Elliot is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. E-mail him at, or troubleshoot your trip through his Web site,