The 'sign here' scam

/ Source: Special to

You've pre-paid for your rental car, but the agent still wants to swipe your card. It's just in case of an accident, she promises you. But when you get home, you discover your card was charged to the tune of $605, for insurance that you didn't order. That's the problem facing one Avis customer who rented a car in France. Can we write this one off to a language barrier - or was this motorist scammed? Plus, find out how you can make sure this doesn't happen to you.

Q: On a trip to France earlier this year we rented a mid-sized Laguna Renault from Avis. We pre-paid $1,002 a month earlier, which was to be the final amount.

When we called for the car in Paris, the young lady in the Avis office asked for our credit card number. We explained that the vehicle was prepaid and that insurance was provided by our credit card.

She said the number of our card was required in case there was an accident and the car was totaled, in which case there would be an immediate charge of $13,000. So we gave her the number.

She indicated with a semi-circle where we needed to initial to authorize the $13,000, should the car be totaled.

We returned the car on schedule without a scratch. We had been satisfied in dealing with Avis at this point and since the car was returned intact, we felt the deal was concluded.

When we returned to the States, we found that Avis had charged us an additional $605. We identified the mistake to an Avis staff member from the Oklahoma office. He said that France requires the additional insurance.

When we asked that the office send us all papers regarding the transaction, the initials authorizing the insurance were under the semicircle drawn by the Avis woman at the airport office.

Can you help us recover the charge of $605 which we did not authorize?

-- Roy Broughton

A: It looks as if you've been the victim of the old "sign here" scam.

That's where a car rental agent asks you to initial a series of circles on a contract that's faded, too small to read, or pushed under your nose in a hurry. It works even better when it's done in another language.

Am I saying that's what the rental agent in Paris did? No. I wasn't there.

But it's no secret that rental agents are trained to persuade you to add profitable extras to your bill, and the fact that she told you there would be "an immediate charge" of $13,000 suggests that's exactly what she was trying to do.

There's nothing wrong with making extra money off a rental - as long as it's done in an honest way and with a customer's consent. And you didn't agree to the extra insurance.

In a perfect world, you should have been able to call Avis and settled your differences in a few minutes.

It's not a perfect world.

I still don't understand why any car rental company would stubbornly hold on to your money and risk losing a customer.

If there was a requirement that you carry additional insurance in France, then Avis failed to adequately disclose that to you at the time of your rental. In addition, the agent you dealt with shouldn't have threatened you in order to get your credit card number. Those are tactics I would expect from an El Cheapo rental agency, not a reputable company like Avis.

Avis should have also explained what you were initialing and given you plenty of time to review the fine print of the contract.

And you should have taken the time to read it.

If you didn't understand it, you should have asked for an English version or asked someone to translate for you.

If you were still unsure of what you were being asked to initial, you shouldn't have signed the contract. (I could tell you stories about signing contracts overseas that would make your blood boil, but I'll save that for another column.)

Here's something else I don't understand: Even when you pre-pay, you normally get a receipt at the end of a rental. Didn't you? If so, then it would have reflected the additional charge.

That would have been the time to speak with a manager to adjust your bill - not after you returned to the States.

There are plenty of apparent mistakes to go around on this case. Yours and theirs.

I contacted Avis on your behalf and it promptly credited $530 to your account. Why not the full amount? It didn't say, and try as hard as I might to write it off to currency fluctuations, I can't. Avis kept $75 for reasons that aren't entirely clear.

I would have liked to see you get all of your money back, but considering the specifics of this case, a partial refund is better than none at all.