Rental insurance surprise

A desk clerk works behind the counter at a Dollar Rent A Car location in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

My wife recently rented a car in Columbus, Ohio, from Dollar Rent A Car. When I made the reservation for her, I specifically told them we did not want their extra insurance coverage.

My wife is not a frequent traveler, so she called me at the rental-car counter that day to ask me if she should accept the insurance coverage charges that they were trying to add to the contract. Since our current auto insurance policy covered rental cars, I told her not to accept their charges.

She specifically told the Dollar Rental car agent in Columbus not to include the $20-a-day insurance coverage on her rental agreement. However, these charges were added.

I have contacted Dollar regarding an insurance charge of $104, but they refuse to make any type of adjustment or issue a refund. The customer service person at Dollar said my wife's electronic signature when she checked out the car is proof that she wanted the insurance coverage. The Dollar counter in Columbus has a small electronic signature unit, and my wife would have had to scroll through many, many pages to see various charges via this tiny signature box unit.

What steps can I take to get a refund?

— Ted Van Anne, Colleyville, Texas

A: The technology your wife used at the time of her rental should have helped her instead of overcharging by $104.

Car-rental companies have installed electronic counter systems to avoid any misunderstandings with customers. Dollar's included a series of digital screens that had to be read and acknowledged before finishing the rental process.

Two of the screens dealt with any additional options purchased, their daily cost and then the estimated rental total, including all options, taxes and fees. When I checked with Dollar, it said it moved to the new system to better explain charges and to disclose any potential issues, such as traffic or toll violations.

If your wife wasn't used to the system, she probably remembers what it was like before these countertop gadgets. Back then, you simply told the agent you were declining the insurance, and then the employee fixed the contract.

The Dollar employee should have told your wife she needed to decline the options on the screen and cautioned her to read the options carefully. Instead, she may have hastily clicked "accept" several times in the mistaken belief that she was looking at the right contract.

She would have had several opportunities to see the final rate and then make a correction at the end of the rental process and when she returned the car. Waiting until after she returned from her trip limited her options for recovering the insurance fee she was wrongfully charged.

At the same time, it is in a rental company's interests to keep the rental process as confusing as possible. Why? Optional insurance is highly profitable. I think there's no question that Dollar could have been clearer about insurance. I've used the screens, and there is a lot of small print. If you're in a hurry, it's asking a lot to read the whole document. Still, your wife should have done her due diligence. And so should anyone else who rents a car in this age of surprise surcharges.

I contacted Dollar on your behalf. A representative said that though the company's records show your wife signed off on the insurance, "it is quite evident that Mr. Van Anne will continue to escalate this issue and remains very concerned with how he feels this charge was applied."

Dollar refunded the $104.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and a co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at chris@elliott.org.