Before her most recent trip last spring, she learned that she was covered through her personal auto policy and her credit card. So she made sure the Dollar Rent a Car clerk with the friendly, back-home demeanor knew she did not want any coverage. “She went back to her big screen, which I could not see, and she clickety-clickety-clicked,” said Ms. McKinnon, a 66-year-old retired nurse practitioner. Then, as the clerk instructed, Ms. McKinnon signed her name on the electronic tablet.
But 15 days later, when she returned the silver Ford Focus, Ms. McKinnon said she was handed a bill for $944, nearly twice what she expected to pay. She was charged an extra $23.95 a day for the loss damage waiver, an option that isn’t technically insurance, but that generally “waives” the renter’s responsibility for loss or damage to the vehicle.
“I was instantly furious,” she said. She may have even kicked a steel pole. The manager was called, but never came. Finally, Ms. McKinnon, still enraged, left to catch her flight home.
What’s curious about her story is that it seems to be occurring again and again at Dollar Rent a Car counters across the country. Just last month, something strikingly similar happened to Chris Hughes and his family when they traveled to Orlando, Fla., to visit Disney World, and rented a Dodge Avenger at the airport there. Ditto for Jay Seibert and his family, who flew to Denver in December to spend time on the slopes in Colorado ski country. “I practice insurance law,” Mr. Seibert said, adding that he explicitly told the agent that he didn’t need or want the coverage, “which made it all the more ironic that they want to saddle us with these costs.”
The problem, in all three cases, is that the customers said they unwittingly signed for the coverage on the electronic tablet even though they had verbally declined it. As for Dollar, which was acquired by Hertz last year for $2.3 billion, a spokeswoman said that the company complied with all laws and denied allegations that it sold customers products they didn’t want.
But at least a hundred customers, according to one consumer lawyer, contend that’s precisely what happened (mostly at Dollar, though a smattering said they had experienced the same thing at Thrifty, a sister rental company). The lawyer, John Mattes, said he had heard from the consumers over the last year and a half. Four of them, including Ms. McKinnon, are at the center of two lawsuits against Dollar Thrifty seeking class-action status. Ms. McKinnon’s complaint, which was amended this week and filed in the Federal District Court in Northern California, alleges that the company engaged in unfair and deceptive business practices. A second separate complaint, filed in November with the Federal District Court in Colorado, is also still pending, according to Alan Mansfield, a consumer attorney in San Diego, who is working with Mr. Mattes on that case and representing the plaintiffs in the California case. The spokeswoman for Dollar Thrifty said the company intended to defend the cases vigorously.
Mr. Mattes said he started collecting victims’ complaints through his Web site, after he heard from two consumers with similar stories within a span of several days. “In my business, one incident can be written off as a mistake, two is a little too coincidental, and when you see three, you say, ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’ ” he said. And he added that he continued to hear from consumers every week.
With the exception of joining a class-action lawsuit, what sort of recourse would a consumer have in this situation? Consumer advocates say any effort should start with a letter to the company, and, if that doesn’t work (it didn’t here) to try lodging a dispute with the credit card issuer. But some Dollar customers tried that with little success: Dollar sent the credit card companies receipts with their signatures. A spokeswoman for Bank of America said it was bound by Visa and MasterCard regulations on disputed chargebacks, and, if the merchant has the customer signature accepting a charge, there’s not much more it can do.
As a result, this situation is likely to quickly devolve into a case of “he said, she said.” In a letter to Ms. McKinnon, Dollar explained that while its agents were capable of making mistakes, the company strongly suggested that clients review the contract carefully before signing to accept. And the records indicated that she initialed to accept the “loss damage waiver” charge.
But even here, there’s the issue of potentially confusing language. Rental customers might say out loud that they want to decline insurance coverage, but then they may see something on the electronic screen that asks them if they agree to the loss damage “waiver.” You can’t blame a tired or inexperienced traveler for thinking that by clicking to accept the “waiver” they are waiving insurance, when, in fact, it means they are accepting that type of coverage.
Perhaps these consumers should have caught the errors on their receipts before they put the keys in the ignition, or they should have been more vigilant about what they were signing on the electronic tablet. The customers I spoke with all said they did as instructed, taking the agents at their word.
“We did not expect that, while the counter agent was smiling and verbally assuring us that we would not be charged for options that we had affirmatively declined and did not want, he simultaneously and apparently was including those very charges,” Mr. Seibert said.
In fact, if travelers believe they were intentionally misled, they can seek punitive damages through small claims court. Alexander Anolik, a travel lawyer and co-author of “Traveler’s Rights: Your Legal Guide to Fair Treatment and Full Value (Sphinx Publishing, 2003),” said to sue for misrepresentation, fraud or unfair business practices, all of which are torts and eligible for punitive damages. That may at least make the case worth your time and effort; Mr. Anolik said to ask for three times the amount you lost in damages.
“I am a judge in California small claims,” Mr. Anolik said, “so I believe in this non-attorney-led, quick, inexpensive means of redress.”