The travel troubleshooter

A surprise $600 bill for my Mexico car rental

Q. We recently rented a car from Thrifty for a week at Cancun airport. We were quoted a rate of $136. The estimate at pick-up time, with mandatory accident insurance and one additional driver, was $371 for the week, which I accepted and signed.

One or two days later, while driving on the highway, the car overheated and stalled. Obviously, they had given us a car with very low radiator coolant. We called Thrifty road service and asked for a replacement car, which they delivered about three hours later, ruining our afternoon excursion.

The replacement car had many dings and scratches, which we pointed out to the person who delivered it and had him document it.

When I turned in this car at the end of the week, Thrifty asked me to sign an accident report. I insisted that there was no accident and that they were at fault for renting us a car without coolant. They insisted I fill out a report, so I just wrote on the form that there was no accident but, rather, overheating due to lack of coolant.

On the rental agreement, the employee at the check-out counter wrote, “It was not (an) accident. It was just overheated and there is no charge to customer.”

A few weeks later when I received my American Express statement, I saw that Thrifty had charged $1,004 for the rental. I opened a dispute claim with Amex for the additional $600 or so charged and sent them a letter explaining the circumstances. I also called Thrifty in the United States and they referred me to the rental company in Cancun. With the help of a Spanish-speaking friend, I called and the manager gave us the run-around and told us the employee in Mexico was no longer with Thrifty.

About three weeks ago I received a set of documents from Thrifty customer service, including a handwritten form with an Amex logo and my signature, both scanned and pasted I believe, stating I accept charges for the damage estimate to the radiator. I don’t recall signing any Amex form at Thrifty when I turned the car in, especially since I insisted there was no accident.

At this point I am frustrated and mad with Thrifty for being fraudulently charged $600 on my rental, and I’m appealing to you for help.

Arjun Aiyer

Oakland, Calif.

A. Nice work keeping the paperwork on this case. Even a handwritten note from an employee is enough to cast doubt on a $600 repair bill sent to you long after you returned your rental.

If Thrifty had a legitimate claim — and I’m not saying that it didn’t — there was a right way to handle it. The company should have asked you to acknowledge the damage by filling out a report. You didn’t fill out a report. Instead, both you and an employee documented the fact that the car broke down.

Car rental companies have been taking an increasingly hard-line position on damage to their vehicles. It doesn’t matter what happens to the car while you’re renting it — if it breaks, you pay for it. That seems unreasonable, since vehicles can break down for all kinds of reasons, which may or may not have anything to do with the driver.

Since Thrifty had already punted your complaint to its Cancun location, I thought a better strategy might be to contact American Express to dispute your charge. Although merchants can retroactively charge you for items (called a “late billing” in the trade) they also have to provide adequate documentation. I thought Amex might want to have a look at the paperwork.

I contacted American Express on your behalf, and it reversed the $600 charge.

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