Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 


It's not just airlines.

You know it isn't.

There are quite a few businesses that might feel they have you at their mercy and use this fact to nibble away like rodents at your credit card.

Of course, airlines are the most visible villains. Their essential relentlessness and chilly venality makes it so.

But what about rental car companies?

You check in and they try to sell you their insurance which may or may not cover you in the event of something bad happening. It isn't cheap.

It seems, though, that there might be another pocket-nibbling wheeze.

I've been increasingly hearing of rental car companies calling to tell customers that they've damaged one of their rental cars when they actually haven't.

I was moved by one description this week on consumer advocate Christopher Elliott's Elliot.org blog.

A Hertz customer, Ani Istanboulian, wrote and claimed that she'd rented a car at Maui airport, returned it without any damage and then received a call telling her she owed $428.

She said Hertz called her three weeks after her rental and told her that she'd wrecked the front bumper.

Istanboulian told them not to be so silly. She'd had the car inspected by a Hertz employee on returning it. There was no damage.

Down came a heavy hand.

"Hertz is saying that I will continue to receive calls and that the claim will remain active," said Istanboulian.

This particular story gave me involuntary eyebrow twitches because a friend of mine had just endured a recent experience with another well-known car rental company.

It, too, called him a couple of weeks after his rental and claimed that he'd damaged the car. The company wanted him to pay.

My friend decided to ask for more details. What he discovered (hey, he's a lawyer) was that his car was supposed to go in for its regular service and the car rental company was trying to palm that charge off onto him.

Elliott, for his part, suggested that there are things customers should do in order to protect themselves against such unwarranted demands.

You should insist that a rental car company employee inspects the car with you before and after.

You should take pictures yourself of the before-and-after state.

He also, though, pointed to a couple of interesting phenomena about this Hertz incident.

How odd, he said, that Hertz called so long after the rental. You might imagine that, had there really been damage, someone would have spotted it, say, when it was washed or rented out again.

And then there's that $428 amount.

Elliott pointed out that $500 is the deductible on most types of car insurance.

"It looked as if Hertz wanted you to pay out of pocket without getting your insurance company involved," he said.

Insurance companies -- like my lawyer friend -- tend to ask for a few more details. They tend not to just pay up immediately when a claim is made.

I asked Hertz for comment on Istanboulian's story and will update, should I hear.

My friend's rental car company demanded an amount similar to the one that Hertz asked of Istanboulian.

"I refused to pay," he told me. "They tried to argue that the service still had to fix the alleged damage. I asked them to prove it. They never did."

Elliott contacted Hertz and the company discovered that the employee who had given Istanboulian's rental car a check -- and found it in pristine condition -- confirmed that this had been the case.

So the case was closed, but not before Istanboulian said hers "appears to be a recurring issue with Hertz."

Perhaps it was a simple employee mistake. Perhaps it was something else. There's no suggestion that every rental car company at every location, including Hertz, might behave this way routinely.

However, here's another example from Elliott's blog in which a customer questions Enterprise's claim of alleged damage to a car.

As so often with such things these days, it's still up to you to take precautions.

It's not as if customers are all pure. Some people do damage rental cars and try to cover up the damage.

However, too many so-called service companies are trying to maximize their profits to painful degrees.

At the customer's expense, that is.

It might be an idea for rental car companies themselves to take pictures of the before-and-after, instead of leaving the responsibility to the customer. That way, the images could be time-stamped and a pure record kept.

But like the airlines, some rental car companies -- or at least their individual employees -- might be putting excessive profits before brand or customer service.

I wonder what the long-term consequences will be.