This is a story about hire car company Europcar and some very, very unhappy customers.
These customers allege they have been charged for damage they did not cause, sometimes without warning, and even speculate that the rental car outfit may be collecting money for repairs from multiple customers.
Europcar Australia has, in fact, already lost a case brought by an individual consumer it held responsible for damage she did not commit and been fined by the Federal Court for the same, along with other transgressions such as misleading people about the maximum possible repairs charge.
That last action, brought by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission about unfair terms in its contract to 2013, cost the company $100,000 and saw it amend its rental agreements.
But Fairfax Media has learned of many more complaints against Europcar more recently - and exclusively spoken to six complainants about their experiences.
It's also likely this is the tip of the iceberg. Of the 754 reviews on consumer ratings site productreview.com.au, 648 rate the company "terrible" and another 51 "bad". Only 55 judge it to be "OK" or better.
Perhaps tellingly, 220 reviews mention the word "damage".
While there are no records on particular companies, a spokesman for NSW Fair Trading says: "[Hire car company] complaints generally relate to unsatisfactory performance of the service, charges above the quoted price [including repairs], and consumers seeking refunds for unauthorised charges [also including repairs]."
Fair Trading agreed to analyse these complaints for Fairfax Media and found 28 per cent (292 of 1052 over three years) refer to vehicle damage, including where customers acknowledge they caused the damage but dispute the cost claimed for the repair.
However, Darling Point medical professionals Dr Peter and Tammy Keller deny they did any damage, yet "suddenly we had an invoice for close to $5000."
The Kellers hired a Europcar van for just one day, June 25, to move some patient beds to a new practice. Fairfax Media has seen pictures time stamped just minutes after their card was debited for the hire, showing extensive damage on pick up.
Yet they have been fighting with Europcar for four months over the $990 excess - they had bought the rental company's liability waiver cover to cap it at this level - and a potential default listing on their credit file.
"We managed to cancel our card in time, yet a week after cancellation, Europcar managed to take the excess money out manually??? It is the bank after all the proof we had, who refunded the money," Tammy Keller says.
But Europcar disputes the Kellers' version of events and says an employee witnessed them causing additional damage by hitting a pole.
A spokesman says: "Europcar has fully investigated Mr Keller's complaint and rejects the claim that the damage was pre-existing."
"All customer complaints are fully investigated and in this case we are confident the correct decision has been made."
The Kellers, on the other hand, feel they have been played. "If Europcar gets away with even just half [of what they charge], they are still laughing all the way," Keller says.
Europcar, via a debt collection agency, is now threatening to add legal fees to the Kellers' not insignificant bill.
But it does not seem to make a difference if the bill is smaller. Eliza Rozeboom, also from Sydney, hired a car in Tasmania in June but found herself out of pocket $233 in August. Like the Kellers, she said the vehicle already had extensive damage.
"It wasn't until almost one month later that Europcar emailed me to advise me that damage had been done to the car," Rozeboom says.
"I was shocked, because when I handed the car back I did a thorough check and did not see any damage whatsoever. In the initial email they sent me they did not indicate what the damage was."
Eventually Rozeboom discovered it was for a 0.5-millimetre windscreen chip and, also like the Kellers, tried to stop the $231 debit by cancelling her credit card, but Europcar was able to take the money regardless.
Now, though, a debt collection agency has "started harassing me via text message, email and telephone" for an amount that has escalated to $258. So for an unpaid $27.
Rozeboom is not the only customer to report mismatched invoices for repair and debits either - some suggesting overcharging for repairs.
Melbourne's Mark Fermor went to the Gold Coast for a day in August. A month later he received a demand for $182 to pay for a missing aerial and was promptly debited $302.
"The two values also make no sense. This is a $25 aerial with a [quoted] cost of replacement of $182 which is crazy, yet they charge $302?" he says.
Meanwhile, in investigating the reason for $283 in repair charges a month after a July trip to Hobart [it was for what looked like a car door ding], full-time student Jordyn Woolley was somehow sent a quote from the panel beater for repairs. He alleges he called that firm weeks later and an employee said the car had still not been repaired.
To Fairfax Europcar said: "Most vehicles are repaired to ensure vehicles are of high quality for future customers."
"Minor repairs may not be repaired until a later time, but if following repair the actual cost is below the original assessed estimate the difference is refunded to the customer."
The bills get far bigger than Woolley's though. The Gold Coast's Beryl Reilly wrote on her pre-inspection form that the opportunity to inspect the vehicle had been denied because of poor light, rain and "your representative at the counter not allowing us to sight the vehicle", on arrival at Auckland International Airport in April. But soon afterwards Reilly was charged $1400 for "pre-existing chips mainly".
Luckily, she bought standalone rental insurance from another company, which covered the cost in full.
Less fortunate was Laurien Kennedy, who hired from Brisbane Airport in November and bought no insurance of any kind. She was billed $4180 for massive hail damage when she claims there was no storm, and the car was undercover for 24 of the 27 hours she had it. Europcar is not responding to her requests for weather evidence.
"No one from Europcar did a vehicle inspection on pick up or drop off, even when I asked them if they would like to do a check on return," she says.
Other hire car companies
Europcar is not the only hire firm to face such accusations. At the same time as it lost the Federal Court case, Hertz agreed to refund a reported $395,000 to customers where there were falsified damages or repair discounts not passed on.
Hertz, however, has a slightly better average rating than Europcar's 1.34 stars (out of five) on productreview.com: 1.54 (from 513 reviews). Budget (1.6 stars from 315 reviews), Thrifty (1.64 stars from 481 reviews) and Avis (1.82 stars from 278 reviews) score a smidgen higher again.
Far better though are Apex Car Rentals and East Coast Car Rentals with 3.39 and 4.63 stars respectively, the latter out of thousands of reviews.
And app-driven options GoGet (3.18 stars) and Car Next Door (4.46) are highly rated too.
Before driving away in a hire car always
- Buy domestic travel insurance, standalone excess reduction insurance or check carefully if credit card insurance covers you. Fairfax Media found no evidence of different treatment when you have these insurances versus the car rental company's own excess reduction, which is far more expensive.
- Inspect thoroughly, preferably in the presence of a sales assistant, before you leave the hire car yard. Note all pre-existing damage, no matter how minor, on documentation.
- Photograph everything, making sure there are time stamps. Do it again at the end. If possible, get the sales assistant in the photos too.
- Victoria's Consumer Action Law Centre says people should be willing to challenge contract terms they think are unfair. On vehicle return, the ACCC suggests asking for a written statement saying the car was undamaged.
Nicole Pedersen-McKinnon is a commentator and educator who presents her Smart Money Start, fun financial literacy incursion, in high schools around Australia. Follow Nicole on Facebook at Nicole Pedersen-McKinnon Money. ???