Q: We recently rented a car through Avis in Frankfurt, Germany, via AutoEurope. We declined the insurance, since our credit card covers us.
When we picked up the car, we were asked to check for any damage, but the car hadn't been cleaned, so it was difficult to do a thorough inspection. We looked over the car and didn't notice anything.
When we returned the car, the lady at the rental location went around the car a few times looking very closely and she finally pointed out a tiny chip on the edge of the driver's door. We had to look extremely closely to see it, and we actually thought she was joking at first.
When we realized she was serious, we took a few photos but knew that it must have been there before. The tiny chip had to have happened when the door was open, and we had never touched anything with the car. She said there wasn't anything noted from the previous renter on the papers she had so she told us to go to the Avis counter upstairs to see if it was noted on the computer. When we checked, a representative told us everything was "OK."
A week or so after we came home we received a letter from Avis, with an estimated cost for the car damage of 800 euros. This is very hard to accept, since we know for a fact we didn't damage this car. Also, I believe the repair cost has been exponentially exaggerated for such a tiny chip or scratch; this is extortion.
We contacted AutoEurope but they said we have to deal with Avis. We have been given the runaround for months. Could you please contact Avis and ask them to drop the 800-euro charge? -- Lidia Conte, Brooklyn, Mich.
A: If you aren't responsible for that tiny ding in your car, then Avis shouldn't charge you for it. Either way, 800 euros is way too much for a chip that can't be seen under a layer of filth. I can certainly understand why you'd think this is a scam.
It's hard to see this from a car rental company's point of view, but let me give it a try. Assuming this isn't a scam (which I hope it isn't) and an Avis representative discovered legitimate damage to your car, and assuming it wasn't noted on an earlier rental, then who should pay for it? The company? Your credit card? Or you?
Your credit card probably wouldn't have covered the dent, since most cards only have secondary coverage, which only kicks in after a primary policy, such as the kind offered by car insurance, has been used. What's more, not all card coverage can be used overseas.
So who pays? You do.
Still, I share your suspicions about what happened. Why charge 800 euros for minor damage? Why tell you everything is "OK" when it isn't? Given the many other cases of ding-scams I've described in this column and on my blog, you have every right to be concerned.
This could have been avoided by saying "no" a few times when you picked up the car and returned it. No, first, to the dirty car. (You're entitled to a clean one.) No when the guy at the gate waved you through without checking the car for damage. I always mark up my rental form and ask the rental employee to sign it -- just in case I end up with Inspector Clouseau when I check back in.
Also, don't accept an employee's word that everything is "OK." Get it in writing. Had an Avis employee signed off on your rental, this would have been an open-and-shut case.
I contacted Avis on your behalf. It contacted you, apologized for your experience, and dropped the charges.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at email@example.com.