Months after her car rental, Diane Mikulis gets a bill for damages she doesn't recognize. When she asks for a translation, the car rental company sends her case to a collection agency. Now what?
Q: My husband and I rented a car from Hertz in Munich last summer. The rental process was incredibly time-consuming and after 45 minutes at the rental desk, a five-minute walk to the garage and then another 30-minute wait in the garage, we finally received our vehicle.
When we returned the car an attendant took a flashlight and examined the underside of the car, bending down so her eyes were about six inches off the ground. She stated that there were "scratches." She also pointed out a depression near the right side of the back window.
It looked like a design feature to us, not a dent since no paint was scratched or cracked. To see that it didn't belong there, you had to walk back and forth to the other side of the car to see that the two sides were slightly different.
We were asked if we had been in an accident or any incident. We said no and wrote that on the sheet they presented us. We asked what the next step was and were told that we "may hear" from Hertz.
Months went by and we heard nothing, so we assumed there was no problem. Almost three months after we returned the car, we received an email from Hertz in Ireland stating that we owe nearly 1,200 euros for the damage. Photos and an itemized bill in German were attached. They suggested we contact them with any questions.
I replied stating that we had not caused the damage, and asking for an English translation of the bill and an explanation as to why the company waited more than 80 days to contact us. I received no response. Since then, we've heard from a collection agency.
We didn't damage the car. Can you help us? -- Diane Mikulis, Ellicott City, Md.
A: Well, you had me with the employee and the flashlight. That's too much. Unless part of the undercarriage somehow came loose and was dragging on the floor -- and after reading the bill, I can tell you it wasn't -- then this would have made my scam alert go off. Big time.
But let's pan back a little from this damage claim. You picked up a black car in a dark garage without inspecting it or taking photographs. Come on. When you're renting a car, you have to take "before" and "after" photos because if they find damage, you're guilty until proven innocent.
So much about the Hertz side of this case was wrong that it made you look almost blameless. The confusion when you picked up the car, the dark garage, the employee examining the underside of your rental, the long wait and then, instead of answering your questions about the bill, sending the matter to a collection agency. It just didn't look right to me.
I contacted Hertz on your behalf. A representative responded to you, insisting that the bill was correct, but offering to reduce the bill by 25 percent. The company continued to refuse to provide you with a translation of the bill, so it's unclear to me how someone at Hertz in the United States could be so sure the bill was right.
That didn't seem right to me. Either you damaged the car or you didn't. I asked if Hertz was absolutely certain that the charge was correct. A representative contacted you and said it would drop 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 email@example.com. 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.)