Car renters struggle to give up old tricks

Fun, fun, fun ... until the bill comes from the car rental company.
Fun, fun, fun ... until the bill comes from the car rental company. 

What is it about the car hire industry that makes it a candidate for the most poorly behaved corporate sector in Australia?

Over a decade or more up until the middle of last year, it seemed to me the car renting business had become virtually incapable of telling the truth about the real cost of renting a car.

The headline rate that appeared in advertisements was usually about half what you'd be up for when you added all the asterisked charges, then put petrol in the tank. Heaven help you if you took the car back with a tank that needed topping up at the renter's sky-high prices.

Then, the Australian Government (first the Howard government, then the Rudd government) pushed through changes to the Trade Practices Act that forced business in general to tell the truth about what they were charging. This included everything from TVs to travel and new cars.

Suddenly the $39-a-day specials in the car renting business disappeared and it was hard to find deals of less than $100 a day because renters were finally required to tell the truth.

But old habits die hard, you'd be forgiven for thinking. The ACCC now reports that the car rental industry is one of the worst offenders in not abiding by new consumer laws enacted in July this year that outlaw unfair contracts.

"The rental car industry is ... one that troubles us because we're finding too many complaints from consumers (who) find themselves being caught in situations they never contemplated," ACCC chairman Graham Samuel told the Australian Financial Review.

According to the AFR, typical complaints relate to credit card deductions when consumers are unaware that contracts authorise operators at their discretion to debit a renter's credit card for an unlimited amount to cover vehicle damage and other items.

There have also been complaints about misleading advertising on issues such as price, quality and availability of vehicles.

But car renters aren't the only ones in the ACCC's sights over alleged breaches of the new fair-contracts law. Mr Samuel says the ACCC is still being flooded with complaints about airlines, as well as telecommunications companies.

Rather than providing a forum for a general whinge, let's keep it specific: Have you been ambushed by a contract provision enforced by a car renter or an airline that you believe "unfairly weights the contract in favour of the service provider"?

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