Help, my car rental company is charging me for a burnt clutch

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When the clutch on his car fails, Hadley Roeltgen is sent an 850 euro bill. But his credit card company says he shouldn't be responsible, and reverses the charge. Now, a collection agency is after him. What should he do?

Q: My husband rented a car from Hertz in Madrid last summer. The car broke while he was on his way back to the airport, and he had to abandon it by the side of the road in order to make his flight back to the States.

He informed the Hertz people at the airport what had happened and they told him it was fine and the car would be retrieved. Three weeks later, we received a letter that there was an 850 euro charge for a burnt clutch on our credit card. We tried to contact Hertz Spain, both before and after the bill, to ensure the car had been collected and everything was fine but they didn't answer the phone or respond to emails.

Hertz sent us an email saying our insurance coverage did not cover "negligence" and that it was our fault and that we owed it 850 euro. It didn't answer any other emails, so we disputed the charge. The investigation by the credit card company came out in our favor, but now Hertz has sent the matter to a collection agency. Do you have any suggestions? -- Hadley Roeltgen, Philadelphia

A: Don't take it personally; credit card disputes that go in your favor are automatically sent to a collection agency. Some car rental companies also add you to a "do not rent" list, which means you're blacklisted from ever renting from it again.

The key to fixing this problem would have been to get it addressed before this became an 850 euro charge on your credit card bill. Calling Hertz and mentioning the breakdown before hailing a cab for the airport might have given the company a chance to offer you a ride back to the airport, where you could fill out the paperwork.

Getting assurances by phone is pointless. You need something in writing before you leave the country. Even if your flight home is imminent, at least stop by the Hertz counter to talk about next steps and get documentation that everything is "fine." But don't take a representative's word for it. It's not enough.

I can't blame you for disputing the credit card bill: Hertz seems to have been less than responsive when you contacted it, asking for an explanation. But what you might not know is that burned clutches are common problems with American renters in Europe. We don't have as much experience driving standard-transmission, and are presumed guilty for every ruined clutch.

The solution? Wherever possible, ask for a rental car with an automatic transmission. This effectively eliminates the clutch problem.

Hertz should have provided a better mechanism through which to appeal its 850 euro charge. Simply reiterating its claim only ratchets up your level of frustration.

I contacted Hertz on your behalf. It dropped the claim.

(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 co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at chris@elliott.org. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.)

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