Kiwis love to leave the big cities behind, rent a car or campervan and explore the backwoods on their overseas holidays. But, following on from recent columns about the rules and quirks of hitting the road, several readers have pointed out that renting a vehicle can be the fastest route to getting scammed.
Most travellers know to carefully look over the vehicle before taking the keys but I – and our once-burned, twice-shy correspondents - would advise that’s not enough.
Rule 1: Use a big, international brand, not the cheap rent-a-dent operators. If something goes wrong and you need to call a mechanic, the big companies are far more likely to have access to roadside rescue or be able to provide a replacement vehicle.
Their business practices are also, shall we say, more professional. However, in many countries these brands are often handled by local franchisees and the service may go little further than the county line. In some places they’ve got the name on the window because Grandad ran the village bike shop, Dad opened the local garage and the family has held on to the agency.
Rule 2: Always record the condition of the vehicle yourself before you drive away – see our checklist below. It will help if you have an accident and you’ll be able to produce evidence if a rental firm tries to scam you by alleging you’ve banged or scratched the vehicle.
It might not happen on the spot. Rental firms can and have charged customers’ credit cards for damages weeks or months after they’ve returned the car and signed off the paperwork.
Rule 3: If you’ve rented a car or campervan before, you’ll be familiar with the quick walk-around the vehicle with a staff member marking current scratches and dents on a diagram. If you sign that sheet, you’re signing off that the damage was there before you rented it.
If you’re not comfortable with this cursory inspection, write something on the sheet along the lines of, “There’s more damage to this vehicle than listed here. See my video and photos” before you sign and take a photo as proof if needed.
Rule 4: If you feel you’ve been scammed and the rental firm won’t back down, contact your credit card company and dispute the charges.
Rule 5: This is a 21st century, first-world problem. You may use Bluetooth or a charging cable to sync your smartphone with the rental vehicle to play music or get directions.
When you do, your contacts, locations, music subscriptions, social media and text messages are transferred to the vehicle’s onboard computer. The next person who rents it has access to all your data, and rental companies regularly turn over their fleets, so who knows where your info will end up.
Before you return a rental, remove your phone from the paired devices. If there’s a factory reset option, select it to erase any data stored on the car’s computers.
Some other reader tips:
Double-check the agency pickup and drop-off hours. If possible, cross-check with the local agency’s website (this may offer contradictory information). Dropping off out-of-hours can lead to extra charges and open the possibility of the damage scam. Rent a car that’s big enough for you to get all your suitcases in the boot, out of sight, but small enough for you to squeeze into tiny, tight-cornered European parking buildings. Check the hotel’s carparking arrangements – you may have to park the vehicle several streets away and walk back to the pension.
Accept that at some stage it is highly likely you will return to your vehicle and discover a dent. Nobody will have left a note accepting blame.
Finally, I’ve had some of these tricks pulled on me. But never in Aotearoa or Australia, so a hat-tip to the honesty of rental car firms on this side of the world.
To protect yourself from the common rental car damage scam, make sure you properly record the car’s condition before you drive away and when you return it:
- Number plate
- Each panel - doors, bumpers, bonnet, boot
- Each wheel
- Slowly video the entire vehicle. If you notice dents or scratches, point them out while you’re recording
- Start the car and photograph the instrument panel – mileage, fuel, any warning lights
- Front and rear seats
- Boot (without your luggage)
- Extras like a child’s car seat or GPS
- If you’re in a campervan, take photos of everything in the interior - it’ll be a little time-consuming, but worth it in the long run
Email everything to yourself or save them to an online drive to record and time-stamp photos/video if you need it later.