Q: Im having a problem with a car I recently rented from National in Denver, and I hope you have the time to help me. Im 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 didnt get an agent to sign off on it. Oh well, I havent had trouble with National before.
Famous last words.
When I returned the vehicle, an agent pointed to a dent on the drivers 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 didnt.
If I really believed I caused the damage I would pay them in a heartbeat. Its not about me wanting to avoid paying for my mistake; its 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 didnt 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 now are pursuing their customers for every little scratch. You could buy optional insurance, but that often doubles the cost of your rental (and indeed, its a huge moneymaker for car-rental agencies).
You also could have given yourself a little extra time when you returned the car in Denver so that you could speak with a manager about the damage. Im skeptical of any claim about damage that you have to bend over or get on a ladder to see. Im not joking about the ladder part Ive had two recent cases where agents inspected the roof for damage and made a claim.
At the same time, I understand Nationals point of view. According to its records, the car was damaged while it was in your possession. Although I dont necessarily subscribe to the guilty until proven innocent approach, they have a business to run, and if we dont like it, we always can rent from another company.
I didnt send this case to National because I thought you werent 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 better explanation of why you were liable. Instead, it sent you one-sentence replies. Thats not good customer service.
National dropped its claim.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Email him at email@example.com, or troubleshoot your trip through his website, www.elliott.org. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.