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A sure sign of a good holiday is happy memories that last the whole year. But six months after Andrew and his wife returned from a short break, an unexpected charge on their credit card bill cast a shadow over their trip.

The car hire company they used unexpectedly charged them several hundred pounds — half a year after the original rental payment had been processed. Andrew called his credit card company, who froze the payment, but he was stunned by the car hire company’s response.

When contacted, they sent a letter claiming he had returned the vehicle with damage to the bumper which would cost £325 to repair. The letter contained photos (undated) of the alleged damage, but no explanation of why it had taken six months to flag this up.

Unsure of his rights, Andrew approached me as the author and campaigner behind The Complaining Cow website to ask what to do next.

Sadly, he is not alone. Over the past few years, I have noticed a gradual rise in complaints about car hire companies, both in the UK and abroad. Disputed claims of damage caused to the vehicle by drivers is a frequent issue.

So before you head off on holiday, how can you protect yourself to prevent possible problems during and after car hire?

Do your research
It is very easy to pay too much for a hire car — booking in advance is essential. Explore comparison websites and companies’ own sites — for the best price, and to check out reviews from previous customers. Search for discount codes and consider using cashback sites to make big savings.

Check out insurance
Like any insurance you will have to choose how much excess you want to pay and if you want to cover damage to the tyres or windscreen. Theft protection may be extra too (it is mandatory in Italy). Car hire companies will charge handsomely for these extras. Consider taking out cheaper “waiver” insurance with an independent insurer before you travel — an annual policy can often be found for a fraction of the amount the car hire firm will charge for a single trip.

Payment
Pay by credit card if the total is more than £100 for added protection in the event that you encounter a problem, or require a refund.

Check the car
When you pick up the vehicle, check the tyres, the fuel level, windows, interior and bodywork. Ensure that any pre-existing damage is clearly indicated on the pre-rental inspection report or rental agreement. If the document is in another language, add your own note in English on the paperwork and take a photo with your phone, or even a short video walking around the car, to record the condition accurately.

Professional membership
If hiring in the UK, check to see if the company is a member of the British Vehicle Rental Leasing Association (BVRLA). If hiring in Europe, use members of the European Car Rental Conciliation Service (ECRCS). This gives you more rights in the event of a problem.

If you damage the car
Collect as much evidence in the form of dated/timed photos and video taken from all angles. Agree any damages you caused before signing the return form.

Returning the car
Be sure that the person to whom you are returning the car is from the firm and not someone trying to steal the car (sadly, I have been contacted by people who have fallen for this ploy). Make sure the company representative signs the documents to say that the vehicle has been returned in the same condition. Sign yourself and again take photos and video of all around the vehicle — especially if you are returning the vehicle outside of office hours and simply dropping off the key.

Keep your paperwork

While it is common to hear of rental companies charging for non-existent damage, it is unusual to hear of it happening half a year later. But that is exactly what happened to Andrew — and by this time, he no longer had the paperwork.

So what can you do if you are charged for damage you did not cause? In Andrew’s case, he had booked his hire car through a large online business, but the bill for damage had been charged by the local franchise operator. With my help, he emailed a formal letter of complaint to the chief executives of both companies asking why this happened so long after the car’s return, including requests to see evidence (copies of mileage and subsequent hires) and pointed out his legal rights. The good news? He received an immediate refund.

If you find yourself needing to make a similar complaint, here are some pointers:

Supply evidence

Sending photographic evidence to dispute a damage claim is your best form of defence. Sadly, Andrew hadn’t taken photos as he had not damaged the car, which was returned out of hours. So his complaint focused on the length of time that had elapsed before the alleged damage was brought to his attention.

Query the charges

If you paid over £100 by credit card, contact your card provider, who under Section 75a of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 is jointly liable for the transaction and may refund the charge.

If payment was taken long after the vehicle was returned, question the reasoning for holding on to your credit card details. The new General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) come into force on 25 May 2018, replacing the Data Protection Act. There must be a valid reason for holding your data.

Know your rights

For UK rentals the Consumer Rights Act 2015 legally entitles you to services “carried out with reasonable skill and care”. Additionally, the BVRLA’s Code of Conduct says providers must act “with integrity and ensure any agents working on their behalf also follow the standards set out in this Code of Conduct” This Code (quote it) also says that the company must advise you of any costs no more than 10 days after return and cannot take money from your card without informing you.

If the company is a member of the European Car Rental Conciliation Service, quote the Leaseurope Code of Best Practice. Under this, the company should inspect the returned vehicle in the customer’s presence and provide a written post-rental inspection report.

Furthermore, an EU wide directive 005/29/EC concerns unfair commercial practices, including a ban on conduct below a level which may be expected towards a consumer. Quote this for EU rentals, for example, not ensuring pre-existing damage was clearly indicated on pre rental inspection report. The UK has implemented this directive though the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.

Go straight to the top
When complaining, copy in the chief executive. You can find email addresses from the website https://ceoemail.com. Make sure your complaint outlines the dates, evidence, plus breaches of relevant codes and laws.

Use a dispute resolution scheme
Both the BVRLA and ECRCS run alternative dispute resolution schemes (ADR) for member companies. Should you not be happy with the provider’s response you can use the ADR scheme free of charge. Companies are bound by the adjudicator’s decisions.

Always be polite
My general advice to anyone making a complaint is to be polite and objective but assertive. Provide a deadline by which the company must reply and spell out what you will do to escalate the issue if necessary, for example, taking your case to the small claims court and claiming for out-of-pocket expenses.

It is well worth spending a few minutes checking the paperwork and taking photos before you drive away to ensure that your happy holiday memories are not wiped out by a hire care nightmare.

Helen Dewdney is a consumer campaigner behind the Complaining Cow website, and the author of “How to Complain: The essential consumer guide to getting refunds, redress and results”. Twitter: @ComplainingCow

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