Car hire scams: Beware of false damage claims by rental companies

First, there are all the usual hire-car scams that aren't even considered improper: the sort of "Super Size Me" upsells that a fast food chain would be proud of.

These are all the added extras, all the buy-it-or-things-will-go-wrong doomsday predictions, all the bits that are being added to your bill before you even realise what's happening. I've hired a lot of cars over the past year or so – more than 10, maybe even more than 20 – and I know the spiel almost off by heart.

"So, we'll put you down for the full insurance," the attendant will mutter, tapping a few keys, glancing at your details.

"Ah, no. Just the standard insurance please. The one I booked online. The one I've already paid for."

"Are you sure? With comprehensive insurance you'll have no excess on any damage. Though windscreen and tyres aren't covered."

Oh, you mean the two things most likely to be damaged? The two parts of the car I have almost no control over? They won't be covered? Great.

So you just go with the standard insurance, the one you booked, because in all likelihood nothing will go wrong, plus if you have travel insurance you will be covered for those whopping excess charges anyway.

But then there's more upselling. How many passengers do you have? Are you sure this car is big enough? For only 20 euros more a day you can have a much larger car. And how about a GPS? Do you need one of those included? Only 10 euros a day (no one mentions that your car has one inbuilt).

And would you like us to fill the car up with petrol when you return it? No one mentions that the fee is higher than at a petrol station. And how would you like to pay, in your own currency? No one mentions the hefty commission charged for that pleasure.

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If you're not careful, it's pretty easy to walk out of the hire car shop having spent at least double what you thought the car would cost you. And that's all standard. That's normal. The insidious part comes after you've returned the car, about a week or so later.

That's when an email drops into your inbox. Subject: "Damage number SX-80734763-65-78". The company has discovered damage that was done to the car during your hire period. You're directed to an online form where you can explain how the damage was done, and whether the police were called. After that, the company will decide its next course of action.

Only, you don't remember doing any damage to the car. You're pretty sure no incident ever occurred.

This has happened to me three times in the past 12 months. Three times, from the same Sixt rental outlet in San Sebastian, Spain. This isn't to say that this is a practice that's limited to Sixt, and it's also not to say that it's something that happens regularly with that company. All I'm saying is that it's happened three times now at the one outlet (why did I keep going back? It was the only place open that was close by when I needed a car).

It's a bogus damage claim – made innocently, possibly, though probably not – designed to get you to pay for something you didn't do. And you will often be charged a reasonably large amount of money for that damage, something that your travel insurance won't entirely cover unless you have a zero-excess policy.

Fortunately, I haven't had to pay a cent. Every time one of these claims has come through I've been able to respond to say that the damage didn't take place during my hire period, and I've been able to send photos to prove it. Another response has come through a few days later, each time, saying my case has been closed.

Without those photos, however, it would be my word against theirs – and they already have my credit card details on file. Guess who would win?

This is a reminder, therefore, to take photos of your hire car when you pick it up, and again when you drop it off. It feels to me like you shouldn't have to do this, and there was certainly a time when no one would, before we were all carrying tiny cameras around in our pockets 24/7.

It feels like hire car companies should be more trustworthy than that. This isn't GoGet or Car Next Door – it's not new technology that relies on photographic evidence because there's no staff on site. Hiring a car is more old-school than that. It's traditional.

But still, the risk is there. When you pick the car up and when you drop it off, take photos. Keep the evidence.

Otherwise you really will find that your bill gets super-sized.

Have you had any troubles with hire-car companies during your travels? Have you had to argue about bogus damage claims? Do you always take photos when you hire a car?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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