March 11 (Reuters) - A few weeks after Melanie Mendez and her husband returned home to Massachusetts from South Florida in January they received a bill from a rental car company for $555. The reason? Damage to the 2012 Hyundai Sonata GLS they had rented.
Mendez, 41, says the damage was there when she got the car, but a diagram made at the time of the rental noted it on the wrong side of the vehicle. While she normally pays more attention, this slip got away from her. And once it was done, there was no convincing the rental agency that it was pre-existing damage. She had to turn to the Better Business Bureau, which eventually got the charge dropped.
The Mendez family's experience is not unusual. Rental car customers nationwide frequently complain online and to the Better Business Bureau of surprising charges beyond questionable damage claims to consumer groups. The griping includes unexpected or unauthorized charges for the use of a toll transponder, upgrades, drop-off fees, fuel and insurance coverage.
Problems like this are common throughout the industry, says John Mattes, a former television consumer reporter who is now an attorney in California. Not a day goes by, he says, that he doesn't hear from a consumer with a complaint about a questionable rental car charge.
"For consumers today, going into a car rental agency is about as miserable as going on to a used car lot," Mattes says.
In 2012, Mattes filed a lawsuit against Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group, now part of Hertz Global Holdings Inc, alleging the chain regularly charged customers for insurance coverage they've rejected. The company has denied the charges, and the case is in mediation.
Leading rental car companies say they do make an effort to inform consumers to try to avoid any surprises.
"We have worked to publicize this type of consumer information as part of the public record and make it as accessible and transparent as possible," says Laura Bryant, spokeswoman for Enterprise Holdings, which operates Alamo Rent A Car, Enterprise Rent-A-Car and National Car Rental.
Bryant notes that damage claims are not a profit center for the company, and says the company has a variety of ways it communicates with customers. For instance, in explaining how the damage claims process works, she says customers are not held responsible for normal wear and tear, which includes "minor dings, scuffs, chips or windshield 'stars."'
Even so, tired travelers looking at tablet screens filled with small print can get overwhelmed by choices to initial and sign, Mattes says.
The system puts consumers on the defensive, having to sort out what insurance to take or decline and to figure out what "waiver" really means. "In English, we think the word 'waive' means we don't want it," Mattes says, but in rental car language a waiver can be an added coverage with a fee.
Here are a few way experts suggest to protect yourself:
1. Know your agreement
All of your coverage options will come at a cost. Most of all, you should know the loss damage waiver is coverage that is often already covered by auto insurance or credit card. (Using a credit card gives consumers another means to appeal a disputed charge.) So beware of paying twice for the same thing.
Agree to roadside assistance? It could cost you up to $21 a day. "If the car breaks down on the side of the road, they should pay you," Mattes says.
Make sure you know about toll transponder surcharges, late fees and early return fees by studying up before you get to the counter, says Sharon Faulkner, executive director of the trade group the American Car Rental Association, speaking as a long-time car rental agency franchise owner and not on behalf of the association.
2. Scour your bill
You agree to one set of charges at the desk, but what's on your final bill, when you are in a rush to check out and go home, might be different.
Barry Maher, a California-based motivational speaker has had this happen at least three times. Once time, he dropped off a car on a Saturday with plenty of time to spare. But the office was closed and Maher was later billed for Sunday and Monday.
3. Get evidence
Take down the names of anyone you speak to, advises Faulkner. When you are examining the car, take pictures of the automobile along with a photo of the odometer (showing yourself in the photo to prove you haven't left the lot), she suggests. Be sure the images bear a date and time stamp.
4. Listen to others
Peer review sites, such as a Yelp.com and TripAdvisor.com, will give you a chance to see what others are saying, too. Pay particular attention to recent reviews and patterns, Mattes says. Look for comments about surprise charges and add-ons. If you see anything unusual, be sure to ask about it - before you drive away.