Take disputed charges to the car rental agency first

Question: My wife and I traveled to Las Vegas for a trade show. I decided to use my credit card points to cover my car rental through Dollar Rent a Car.

At the car rental desk I was pressured to take the optional insurance, but I told them I had checked with my insurance agent and that I was covered. After 10 minutes of saying “no” she insisted on making a copy of my credit card. I let her and went on my way.

I rented the car for five days, drove a total of 83 miles and returned the car with a full tank. A Dollar employee checked the car when I returned it and said everything was “OK.”

On my next credit card bill I noticed a $125 charge from Dollar, 19 days after the car was returned. I complained to Visa, and a month later I received a letter from Visa saying that Dollar claimed the car needed excessive cleaning due to pet hair, smoke and dirt.

We don’t smoke and we don’t have a pet. Dollar refuses to remove the fee. Can you help?

Joe Galindo, Anoka, Minn.

Answer: Dollar should have notified you of any cleaning charges when you returned the car, not as a surprise on your credit card bill almost three weeks later. Even if Dollar suspected that you’d smoked a pipe next to your Great Pyrenees after a long day of hiking in the desert, it should have notified you promptly of the cleaning fee and offered evidence of your allegedly messy ways.

What kind of evidence? Well, photos would be a good start. A signed incident report, documenting the condition of the vehicle might work too. You didn’t get any such proof, and neither did your credit card.

But in disputing this charge, you took a shortcut, moving straight to a credit card dispute instead of contacting the car rental company directly. I might have started with a brief, polite email to Dollar sent through its website, and if necessary, an appeal to a manager at the local or national level.

A credit card dispute removes an entire level of appeal. Think of it as taking your small-claims case directly to a higher court. And speaking of court, your only real recourse after losing a credit card dispute is to take your case to court.

That probably wasn’t practical, given the amount of your claim.

I think you would have had a good chance of prevailing in court, by the way. Dollar didn’t offer any documentation, as far as I can tell. It simply asked you, and your credit card, to take its word.

I contacted Dollar on your behalf, and it removed the $125 charge from your credit card.

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 celliott@ngs.org.

© 2012 Christopher Elliott / Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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