Travel Troubleshooter: It's a big bill for a small scratch

Published: Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3H

I'm having a problem with a car rental, and I'm hoping you can help. I rented a car from National Car Rental in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. I did not take photos of the car at pick up or drop off. When I picked up the car, I did a visual inspection and noted a scratch on the rear left bumper. An attendant indicated it was "noted in the computer." When I returned the car, the attendant noted a scratch on the front passenger side, on the lower bumper. I questioned being responsible for the scratch. Given its location, it could have been easily missed when I picked up the car.

The attendant suggested I talk with the supervisor on duty, who clearly indicated everything was OK. There was no damage report mentioned or issued at that time.

One month later I received a vague letter from National Damage Recovery Service, saying that I was being held responsible for damage to the car. The extent or costs of damage were not specified. Also, the drop-off date and time indicated on this "vague letter" was incorrect.

National wants to charge me $1,341 – far beyond what was evident on the car when I dropped it off. It sent me photos showing damage to the car that grossly exceeded the one scratch in question. My insurance carrier indicates that National has been extremely uncooperative on this matter and we are still in the middle of trying to resolve this issue. Can you help?

– Theodore Mariano, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

National shouldn't have charged you for damage if it agreed to drop the matter. But you could have ensured that the matter would stay dropped with a few simple precautions.

First, as you note, you should have photographed the car both before and after the rental.

If an employee points to some damage, then you absolutely have to fill out the paperwork – either a damage report or at the very least, a form that says the scratch is "normal" wear and tear and you won't be charged for it. Don't take anyone's word for it. You won't be able to prove a supervisor told you everything would be "OK" later unless you have something in writing.

Based on what you've told me (the paperwork irregularity, too high damage claim) I was equally suspicious of the bill you got from National. The fact that it isn't being cooperative with your insurance company – at least according to you – makes me think the case may deserve a closer look by National's damage-recovery unit.

Let me be clear about this: If the car was damaged on your watch, you should pay for the repairs. But I'm not sure if National has proven anything, except that it wants $1,341 from you.

I contacted National. A representative called you and said that upon a "more thorough review of its records" the scratch did indeed exist before you rented it. Still, National dropped its claim.TRAVEL TROUBLESHOOTER Christopher Elliott

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