9:30 AM EDT, September 30, 2013
Jenny Tran discovers a mysterious $260 charge on her credit card and discovers she's been charged for optional car rental insurance she never wanted, or needed. Can she get a refund?
Q: I recently rented a car from Avis in Houston, Texas, with a friend. A few weeks after we returned the car, I discovered a $260 charge for optional insurance that we never asked for. I need your help getting a refund.
Here are the details. We had pre-paid for the car using Priceline's "Name Your Own Price" service, which covers the entire cost of the rental. When we got to the counter, my friend offered them his debit card -- it's all he was carrying -- and an agent said they needed a credit card.
So I gave them my card. Before I handed it over, I asked if it'd be charged. The agent said "no."
After coming home from the trip, I found out I was charged $260 and wonder where this amount was coming from. We looked at the paperwork from Avis, and that's when I saw his signature to accept the optional insurance. I asked him if he knew he signed for it and he said "no."
Why would we agree to pay $260 for insurance when we have our own? On top of that, the $260 charge went over my credit limit and now I am paying $200 for minimum payment instead of just my regular $20 minimum payment. Please help me. -- Jenny Tran, Los Gatos, Calif.
A: You and your friend appear to have experienced the "sign-here" scam. That's when someone slides a contract -- and more recently, an electronic pad -- in front of you and asks you to initial or sign it.
Two ingredients are essential to the scam. First, you have to be made to feel rushed, which is pretty easy when there's a line of other customers behind you. And second, you have to receive verbal assurances that your signature is just a "formality."
Was this a scam? I don't know, because I wasn't there when you rented your vehicle. But I've heard your story before, and I know car rental agents are rewarded for "upselling" customers like you on optional, and highly profitable, insurance. At the very least, this was a misunderstanding.
It's not unusual for a rental agent to ask for a credit card. Car rental companies need a valid card, just in case a customer damages a car. Think of it this way: They're handing you the keys to a $30,000 automobile. They need some assurances that you'll bring it back in one piece. The credit card imprint does that.
You should have read the contract. I know you probably realize that now, but it merits repeating. Read. The. Contract. Had you done that, you would have noticed that your friend was signing up for optional insurance. You could have fixed the problem then and there.
Once you saw the charges, you should have written to Avis, not called. Why? Because you're creating a necessary paper trail so that, in the unlikely event you need to forward this to the Texas insurance commissioner, you would be able to prove that you went through all the correct channels to get this resolved. I know it's difficult. When you see a bogus charge on your credit card, you want a resolution yesterday. But patience can be a powerful and effective tool to get this kind of car trouble fixed.
I contacted Avis on your behalf, and it has offered you a full refund.
(Christopher Elliott is the author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the 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 email@example.com. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.)
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