By Christopher Elliott
Question: I recently rented a car from Avis in Houston, Texas, with a friend. A few weeks after we returned the car, I discovered a $260 charge for optional insurance that we never asked for. I need your help getting a refund.
Here are the details. We had pre-paid for the car using Priceline’s “Name Your Own Price” service, which covers the entire cost of the rental.
The agent refused my friend’s debit card. So I gave them my credit card. Before I handed it over, I asked if it’d be charged. The agent said no.
After coming home from the trip, I found out I was charged $260 and wonder where this amount was coming from.
We looked at the paperwork from Avis, and that’s when I saw my friend’s signature to accept the optional insurance.
Why would we agree to pay $260 for insurance when we have our own? Also, the $260 charge went over my credit limit and now I am paying $200 for minimum payment instead of just my regular $20 minimum payment. Please help me.
Jenny Tran, Los Gatos, Calif.
Answer: You and your friend appear to have experienced the “sign-here” scam. That’s when someone slides a contract — and more recently, an electronic pad — in front of you and asks you to initial or sign it.
Two ingredients are essential to the scam. First, you have to be made to feel rushed, which is pretty easy when there’s a line of other customers behind you. And second, you have to receive verbal assurances that your signature is just a “formality.”
Was this a scam? I don’t know, because I wasn’t there. But I’ve heard your story before, and I know car rental agents are rewarded for “upselling.” At the very least, this was a misunderstanding.
It’s not unusual for a rental agent to ask for a credit card. Car rental companies need a valid card, just in case a customer damages a car.
They need some assurances that you’ll bring it back in one piece.
You should have read the contract. I know you probably realize that now, but it merits repeating. Read. The. Contract.
Had you done that, you would have noticed that your friend was signing up for optional insurance. You could have fixed the problem then and there.
Once you saw the charges, you should have written to Avis, not called. Why? Because you’re creating a necessary paper trail so that, in the unlikely event you need to forward this to the Texas insurance commissioner, you would be able to prove that you went through all the correct channels to get this resolved.
Patience can be a powerful and effective tool to get this kind of car trouble fixed.
I contacted Avis on your behalf, and it has offered you a full refund.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the author of “Scammed.” Read more travel tips on his blog, www.elliott.org or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2013 Christopher Elliott/ Tribune Media Services, Inc.