Frequent rental car users like Dr. Allen Friedman know the drill.
"I've never had a problem before," he told the Contact 5 Investigators.
Not until he arrived at the rent a car counter during a trip to Denver in 2011.
"They attempted to up-sell me and I was not surprised by that," he said.
Allen says he declined the optional insurance and all the extras, but when he returned the car 9 days later he was taken for a spin when, he says, he was charged $215 for insurance and another $53 for roadside protection. Both options, he says, he declined.
"I called Dollar rental right away and told them there must be some mistake," said Allen.
Allen claims Dollar refused to remove the fees that doubled his bill.
Allen, who lives on Florida's west coast, didn't complain to the state, but the Contact 5 Investigators found plenty who did.
Since 2011, more than 180 consumers have filed complaints with the state Attorney General's Office about Dollar Rent a Car or Thrifty, which are owned by the same company. Most of the complaints involved optional insurance charges and fees for unpaid tolls.
Another 42 complaints were filed against Budget and Avis rental cars.
The Florida Attorney General's office is now investigating the companies.
Former Dollar Rent a Car employee Jamal Powell worked at the company's Tampa airport office. He described a sales-driven culture and commission structure that rewards agents who up-sell optional items.
"As long as you sell the insurance you are good to go," he said.
After 18 months, Jamal was let go.
The Contact 5 Investigators, along with Scripps stations across the country, rented more than a dozen cars from Dollar or Thrifty Rent a Car. A third of the time the agent asked more than twice about purchasing additional insurance. The Contact 5 Investigators were never charged for it, only charged for what was agreed to.
Complaints about unauthorized charges have triggered lawsuits against Dollar/Thrifty in Colorado and California.
Dollar/Thrifty's corporate office sent the following statement:
"We do not typically comment on pending litigation. However, we can say that Dollar/Thrifty complies with all laws and denies allegations that it sells customers products they do not want. The company intends to defend the cases vigorously."
"Before you rent a car you need to go through it with a fine tooth comb," advises Eugene Reavis.
Reavis heads the consumer affairs unit for Palm Beach County. Since 2010, the office has received a half dozen complaints against different car rental companies over a variety of issues, including overcharges.
Reavis' best advice, "go through the contract with the rental car company before you take that car off the rental car lot."
Allen Friedman plans to go the distance to make sure his wrong turn, becomes right.
"This isn't what I asked for and no I won't let it go," he said.
"Friedman is one of the plaintiff's named in the Colorado lawsuit. He wants the company to changes its practices and issue refunds to consumers who were wrongfully charged.
More expert advice:
- Ask what the total cost will be after all fees are included. There may be an airport surcharge or drop-off fees, insurance fees, fuel charges, mileage fees, taxes, additional-driver fees, under aged-driver fees, and equipment rental fees (for items such as ski racks and car seats).
- Ask whether the rental company checks the driving records of customers when they arrive at the counter. If so, you could be rejected even if you have a confirmed reservation.
- Check in advance to be sure you aren't duplicating insurance coverage. If you're traveling on business, your employer might have insurance that covers accidental damage to the vehicle. You might also have coverage through your personal auto insurance, a motor club membership, or the credit card you used to reserve the rental.
- Carefully inspect the vehicle and its tires before renting and when you return it. Try to return the car during regular hours so you and the rental staff can look at the car together to verify that you didn't damage it.
- Check refueling policies and charges.
- Pay with a credit card rather than a debit card, to avoid holds on other funds in your checking account.
- Ask the rental company if a deposit is required. If so, ask for a clear explanation of the deposit refund procedures.