Travel Solutions: Car-rental snafu sets off scam alert; customer must be more careful, too

Travel Solutions: Car-rental snafu sets off scam alert; customer must be more careful, too

My husband and I rented a car from Hertz in Munich last summer. The rental process was incredibly time-consuming, and after 45 minutes at the rental desk a five-minute walk to the garage and then another 30-minute wait in the garage, we received our vehicle.

It was parked in the travel lane, so we hurried to load our luggage and get out of the way. We were not offered the opportunity to examine the car. It was dark in the garage, and the car was black.

When we returned the car an attendant took a flashlight and examined its underside, bending down so her eyes were about 6 inches off the ground. She stated that there were scratches. She also pointed out a depression near a back window.

It looked like a design feature to us, not a dent, since no paint was scratched or cracked. To see that it didn't belong there, you had to walk back and forth to the other side of the car to see that the two sides were slightly different.

We were asked if we had been in an accident. We said no and wrote that on the sheet they gave us. We asked what the next step was and were told that we "may hear" from Hertz.

Almost three months after we returned the car, we received an email from Hertz stating that we owe nearly 1,200 euros for the damage. Photos and an itemized bill in German were attached. They suggested we contact them with any questions.

I replied stating that we had not caused the damage, and asking for an English translation of the bill and an explanation as to why the company waited more than 80 days to contact us. I received no response. Since then, we've heard from a collection agency.

We didn't damage the car. Can you help us? - Diane Mikulis, Ellicott City, Md.

A: Well, you had me with the employee and the flashlight. That's too much. Unless part of the undercarriage somehow came loose and was dragging on the floor - and after reading the bill, I can tell you it wasn't - this would have made my scam alert go off. Big time.

But let's pan back a little. You picked up a black car in a dark garage without inspecting it or taking photographs. When you're renting a car, you have to take "before" and "after" photos because if they find damage, you're guilty until proved innocent.

So much about the Hertz side of this case was wrong that it made you look almost blameless. The confusion when you picked up the car, the dark garage, the employee examining the underside of your rental, the long wait and then, instead of answering your questions about the bill, sending the matter to a collection agency. It just didn't look right to me.

I contacted Hertz on your behalf. A representative responded to you, insisting that the bill was correct, but offering to reduce the bill by 25 percent. The company continued to refuse to provide you with a translation of the bill, so it's unclear to me how someone at Hertz in the United States could be so sure the bill was right.

I asked if Hertz was absolutely certain that the charge was correct. A representative contacted you and said it would drop its claim.

Christopher Elliott is author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). Read his blog,, or e-mail him at

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