Travel Troubleshooter: Driver protests fee after rental car overheats

02/23/2014 12:00 AM

02/20/2014 12:33 PM

We recently rented a car from Thrifty for a week at Cancún airport. We were quoted a rate of $136. The estimate at pickup time, with mandatory accident insurance and one additional driver, was $371 for the week, which I accepted and signed.

One or two days later, while we were driving on the highway, the car overheated and stalled. Obviously, they had given us a car with very low radiator coolant. We called Thrifty road service and asked for a replacement car, which they delivered about three hours later, ruining our afternoon excursion.

The replacement car had many dings and scratches, which we pointed out to the person who delivered it and had him document.

When I turned in the car at the end of the week, Thrifty asked me to sign an accident report. I insisted that there was no accident and that they were at fault for renting us a car without coolant. They insisted I fill out a report, so I just wrote on the form that there was no accident but, rather, overheating due to lack of coolant.

On the rental agreement, the employee at the checkout counter wrote, “It was not (an) accident. It was just overheated and there is no charge to customer.”

A few weeks later when I received my American Express statement, I saw that Thrifty had charged $1,004 for the rental. I opened a dispute claim with Amex for the additional $600 or so charged and sent them a letter explaining the circumstances. I also called Thrifty in USA and they referred me to the rental company in Cancún. With the help of a Spanish-speaking friend, I called them and the manager gave us the run-around and told us the employee in Mexico was no longer with Thrifty.

About three weeks ago I received a set of documents from Thrifty customer service, including a handwritten form with an Amex logo and my signature, both scanned and pasted I believe, stating I accept charges for the damage estimate to the radiator. I don’t recall signing any Amex form at Thrifty when I turned the car in, especially since I insisted there was no accident.

At this point I am frustrated and mad with Thrifty for fraudulently charging $600 on my rental, and I’m appealing to you for help.

– Arjun Aiyer, Oakland

Nice work keeping the paperwork on this case. Even a handwritten note from an employee is enough to cast doubt on a $600 repair bill sent to you long after you returned your rental.

If Thrifty had a legitimate claim – and I’m not saying that it didn’t – there was a right way to handle it. The company should have asked you to acknowledge the damage by filling out a report. You didn’t fill out a report; instead, both you and an employee documented the fact that the car broke down.

Since Thrifty had already punted your complaint to its Cancún location, I thought a better strategy might be to contact American Express to dispute your charge. Although merchants can retroactively charge you for items (called a “late billing” in the trade) they also have to provide adequate documentation. I thought Amex might want to have a look at the paperwork.

I contacted American Express on your behalf, and it reversed the $600 charge.

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