Maybe I should have taken a picture of my rental

Carrie Finegan's rental car has a dent on it, and the company wants her to pay for the repair. But did she do it, or was the dent on the car before she rented it? Why doesn't the company seem to care?

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Q: I'm having a problem with a car I recently rented from National in Denver, and I hope you have the time to help me. I'm a faithful reader of your column, but when I rented the car, I failed to follow your advice.

As we were driving away, I said to my husband, "Oh, shoot, I forgot to take pictures of the car and I didn't get an agent to sign off on it. Oh well, I haven't had trouble with National before."

Famous last words.

When I returned the vehicle, an agent pointed to a dent on the driver's side bumper. Although I had to bend down to see it, it was definitely there. At the same time, I know for a fact that I did not damage the vehicle, nor did the damage occur at any time while I was with the vehicle.

We had to run to catch a plane, but we indicated to the agent that we wanted to dispute any claim. National has sent us three letters since then, insisting on being paid $464 for the damage, including a threat to report me to a collection agency if I didn't.

If I really believed I caused the damage I would pay them in a heartbeat. It's not about me wanting to avoid paying for my mistake; it's about not knowing if the mistake was mine or theirs. Can you help me? -- Carrie Finegan, Atlanta

A: National should have been able to provide you with time-stamped photos of your car after your rental, showing the damage, along with a repair bill. I reviewed your correspondence with the company, and I can see the problem: You were asking for a time-stamped photo of the car before you rented it that might prove your theory that you didn't cause the damage.

In a perfect world, car rental companies would photograph their vehicles after each rental, but in real life, they only take snapshots when they want to send you a bill.

By now, you know that taking a picture of the car before your rental is absolutely essential. Car rental companies that used to shrug off little dents and dings are now pursuing their customers for every little scratch. You could buy optional insurance, but that often doubles the cost of your rental (and indeed, it's a huge moneymaker for car rental agencies).

You could have also given yourself a little extra time when you returned the car in Denver, so that you could speak with a manager about the damage. I'm skeptical of any claim on damage that you have to bend over or get on a ladder to see. I'm not joking about the ladder part -- I've had two recent cases where agents inspected the roof for damage and made a claim.

At the same time, I understand National's point of view. According to its records, the car was damaged while it was in your possession. Although I don't necessarily subscribe to the "guilty until proven innocent" approach, they have a business to run, and if we don't like it, we can always rent from another company.

I didn't send this case to National because I thought you weren't responsible. When I read the email chain between you and the company, I felt the representative with whom you were communicating was being short and dismissive. If nothing else, I felt National owed you a more thorough explanation of why you were liable. Instead, it sent you one-sentence replies. That's not good customer service.

National dropped its 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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