I rented a clunker — now they want my cash

by Christopher Elliott on December 31, 2010

Question: I recently rented a car from Enterprise in Jacksonville, Fla. I was asked if I wanted optional insurance, and I declined. At first I was told that there were no cars available to me, but as I waited, another customer returned a car, and I was told I could have that vehicle at the same rate I had originally been quoted.

The car was a mess. It had paint on the outside of the windshield and no gas in the tank. An Enterprise representative thrust a clipboard into my face and told me to “sign here.” I did.

I drove the car home, where it was parked in my driveway the entire time. When I returned the car, I was told that I had damaged it. I was speechless, since there was no way the car could have been damaged in any way while it was in my possession. A representative said she would write something up and send it to me. Later, I received a bill for $775 from Enterprise. I did not damage the car. What can I do? — Nancy Westcott, Jacksonville, Fla.

Answer: Enterprise should have offered you a clean car with a full tank of gas, and given you enough time to inspect the vehicle before driving away.

Sending you on your way with a car you didn’t want, and that hadn’t been properly serviced, is not anyone’s idea of good customer service. Pursuing you for damage that you probably weren’t responsible for — that’s also questionable.

I don’t understand how Enterprise could have offered you insurance, but then told you it didn’t have a car. Why would you want insurance if you didn’t have anything to drive?

But more to the point, why would you accept a car that had no fuel in the tank and looked like a wreck? If a car rental company runs out of vehicles, it needs to find a car from another company and pay for it — at least that’s the industry standard policy.

When someone stuck a clipboard in your face and ordered you to sign, did you read the document? Normally, you’ll find a diagram of a car where you can note any pre-existing damage to the vehicle. It’s important to note everything that you see, even the smallest scratch, because when you return your rental, the company will.

The empty fuel tank is troubling, too. Not only would you have to fill the tank, but you’ll be expected to return the car with a full fuel tank unless you make special arrangements with the car rental company. It’s unclear if you were able to do that.

Once Enterprise decided to pursue you for damages, having the proper paperwork that notes the pre-existing problems, would have made this an open-and-shut case. But without any notations, Enterprise would be forced to assume that you were responsible for the car as it is — scratches, paint and all.

I wouldn’t have driven off the lot without first trying to resolve this. Don’t let someone “get back to you” with a bill. Ask to speak with a manager and explain the situation. If the representative from whom you originally rented the car is available, it might be easy to fix this claim this by asking to speak with him or her.

Once you’re at this stage, where the car rental company is sending you a bill by mail, all hope isn’t lost. You can (and should) request written evidence that you were responsible for the damage, including repair bills and any evidence of loss of use. Ask for time-stamped photos and invoices that show the car rental company had to fix the car after you rented it. Copy the attorney general and insurance commissioner in the state in which you rented the car. Often, the car rental company will back down, because it’s difficult to conclusively prove you were responsible for the damage.

(Of course, if you were responsible, I’m not suggesting you try to use these tactics to avoid paying the bill. I’m just saying that you shouldn’t pay for something you didn’t do.)

I contacted Enterprise on your behalf, and it agreed to drop its claim.

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  • W.M.

    Is this part of Enterprise’s business model? It seems like most of the complaints about car rental companies pulling this trick have been directed against Enterprise. They tried the same gimmick on me once, until they realized that my company’s agreement included insurance.

    I’ll never get a personal rental with Enterprise. I usually rent from Alamo and have never had this problem.

  • Aaron

    W.M., Enterprise owns National/Alamo.

  • http://www.globepharm.org Michael Anisfeld

    After once being snagged by a rental company for pre-existing damages, I now ALWAYS take a photo with my cell phone of the car from all sides and the interior prior to driving off. And, I make sure the pictures are time stamped and geo-tagged (with some part of the renters logo somewhere in the picture (not hard to do with all their signage)

  • DaveS

    I had the same problem with Enterprise. I think they must be giving commissions for this. When I returned the car, they said I would have to pay for a scratch. I denied having been responsible for it. After a time the agent went to his computer and “found” a record of the scratch having already existed before I rented the car. With my business I have to rent from Enterprise at times, but now I always take a very slow walk around the car and remind them they tried to rip me off once. And I was able to cut my rentals down from 12 last year to 3 this year. I hope they realize that their damage antics may bring in money from some customers, but they really hit hard at their reputation and goodwill.

  • jlawrence01

    My wife is an insurance adjuster. Her company used Enterprise for years and occasionally, we used Enterprise on personal rentals.

    Over the years, we encountered a wide variety of issues with ERAC – dirty cars, damaged cars, misrepresented car sizes (a Toyota Yaris is NOT a midsized car), and the like.

    Thus far, National and Alamo have not exhibited the sleazy practices of ERAC.

  • Shannon

    I have rented many cars from Enterprise because of it’s proximity to my home and their willingness to pick me up and take me to the car. It is their policy to give you the car with whatever gas it has in it – sometimes only a quarter of a tank, with a gauge printed on the rental agreement that you sign marked where the gas was when you drove it away. You are then required to fill it only to that point, but a full tank of gas is what I would rather have. I have not had a problem with them claiming damage as I take pictures of anything suspicious and mark it on their form.

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