Travel Troubleshooter: Car-rental signature wasn't just a 'formality'
Question: A friend and I recently rented a car from Avis. A few weeks after we returned it, I discovered a $260 charge for optional insurance that we never asked for. I need your help getting a refund.
Here are the details: We had prepaid for the car using Priceline's "Name Your Own Price" service, which covers the entire cost of the rental. When we got to the counter, my friend offered his debit card - it's all he was carrying - as assurance we would return the car, but an agent said a credit card imprint was required.
So I handed over my card. I asked if anything would be charged to it. The agent said no.
After coming home from the trip, however, I found out I was charged $260 and wondered where it had come from. We looked at Avis' paperwork. That's when I saw his signature to accept optional insurance. I asked him if he knew he had signed for it, and he said no.
Why would we agree to pay $260 for insurance when we have our own?
- Jenny Tran, Los Gatos, Calif.
Answer: You and your friend appear to have experienced the "sign-here" scam. Someone slides a contract - more recently, an electronic pad - in front of you and asks you to initial or sign it.
Two ingredients are essential to the scam. First, you have to be made to feel rushed, which is pretty easy when a line of other customers is behind you. Second, you have to receive verbal assurances that your signature is just a "formality."
Was this a scam? I don't know, but I've heard your story before. I know car rental agents are rewarded for "upselling" customers on optional, and highly profitable, insurance. At the very least, this was a misunderstanding.
It's not unusual for an agent to ask for a credit card. Rental companies need a valid card, in case a customer damages a car.
You should have read the contract. You would have noticed that your friend was signing up for optional insurance. The problem could have been fixed then and there.
Once you saw the charges, you should have written to Avis, not called. Why? Because you're creating a necessary paper trail so that, in the event you need to forward this to the state insurance commissioner, you'll be able to prove that you went through the correct channels to get this resolved.
On your behalf, I contacted Avis, which has offered you a full refund.
Christopher Elliott is the author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the cofounder of the Consumer Travel Alliance. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.