Deciphering rental-car ‘dialogue’

Ever since I first rented a car some 30 years ago, I’ve been doing battle with car-rental companies. I think they have some of the most blatantly unethical consumer practices in the country. (Enterprise is the only company I sort of trust.) I’ve given the industry dozens of opportunities to disprove that, but so far that hasn’t happened. Here’s a recent example:

On April 3, I rented a car through Budget at Sea-Tac (Seattle-Tacoma International Airport). Here’s part of my exchange with the Budget counter clerk regarding insurance coverage for the car.

Budget: Would you like full coverage or just on the car?
Me: What about no coverage?
Budget: So you’re declining coverage?
Me: Yes. You didn’t give that as an option, did you?
B: You’re declining coverage?
Me: Yes, but I’m asking, did you offer me that option?
B: It’s not part of my dialogue.
Me: What do you mean?
B: It’s not part of the dialogue we’re told to use.
Me: That seems wrong to not give people the option because some people would think they have to buy insurance coverage through Budget, which of course they don’t.
B: It’s not part of the dialogue.

The following week, once I was home, I followed up with Budget about this “dialogue.” Here’s the answer I received via email from corporate spokeswoman Alice Pereira:

“Budget customers always have the option to accept or decline additional coverages at the time of rental. If you were not given the option to do so, it is contrary to our company policy. We will look into the matter and take necessary steps to ensure that employees adhere to the policy.”

So, the company line is that Budget tells customers their options. Yet my clerk said he was following “the dialogue we’re told to use.” Someone somewhere is not being honest. What I fear most is that my guy (who can be tracked by my paperwork) will be reprimanded for doing what he likely was being told to do by his boss, and nothing else will happen.

I figured I’d also check with the Washington Attorney General’s office to see if Budget’s failure to give me an option of declining insurance violated any consumer laws. For that I turned to Kristin Alexander, media relations manager in the office of Attorney General Rob McKenna. Here’s what she said:

“All businesses are obligated to inform consumers about their products in a fair and non-misleading manner. If a product or service is optional, it should be represented as such. If Budget (or any similar company, for that matter) has a pattern and practice of misleading consumers to believe that they cannot decline the option of additional insurance, its practices may violate the Washington Consumer Protection Act.

“Assumptive sales techniques are common in car sales, insurance, telecommunications – situations where the seller assumes you want the additional product or service. Consumers should be alert and be willing to pose questions of salespeople who offer additional products or services in conjunction with a sale.”

So, dear readers, stay alert and please complain to the company and the authorities if you feel your rights are being violated. Let me know too!

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10 Responses to “Deciphering rental-car ‘dialogue’”

  1. Karen Says:

    Thanx. I needed that!

  2. boldlygosolo Says:

    Great investigative follow-up! We need people like you doing the “dirty” work!

  3. boldlygosolo Says:

    Okay, that comment of mine above had one two many exclamation points…

  4. Alice Says:

    I will be renting a car in June at Las Vegas airport, so I guess I should pursue Enterprise?

  5. didaniel Says:

    Well, you’d think, wouldn’t you? If only it were that simple. Not all Enterprise outlets are alike, though I do think it’s a more ethical company overall. Overall, I think where Enterprise shines is at its off-airport sites.

    I think **the** most important thing is to know your rights, then go for the best deal, then exert those rights. I most frequently use Budget and Dollar because they’re often the cheapest.

    Call me from the airport if you have any questions. ;)

  6. karel Says:

    A bad thing to encounter that misbehaviour seems to be the standard for some people. Thank you to bring this to the attention of everybody.

  7. Marissa Says:

    I recently got pressured into purchasing the insurance from Enterprise in Renton when my boyfriend’s car was in the shop and the dealers were fronting the bill. Unfortunately we were going on vacation in a few days, and wouldn’t be driving the car. The only “dialog” the sales newbie gave me indicated it was a one time charge, not a daily rate. Why would I want daily insurance if we wouldn’t be driving the car? $300 later, they said they’d made my choices clear even though I never actually signed paperwork (the bill was fronted by the shop, but it didn’t include the “optional” insurance).

    I filed a complaint with the attorney general, and Enterprise wouldn’t even return their phone calls or mail. Shady… and I’m out $300

  8. didaniel Says:

    Hi Marissa. I’m sorry you had to learn this lesson the hard way. And, yep, this is a case in point that not every Enterprise outlet is alike. I don’t know that the salesperson being a “newbie” is relevant. It’s often the most savvy/experienced ones who know what to say. As far as I know, their income rises in connection with the overall sale. I’m going to contact you directly to see if I can help further. Power of the press and all…

  9. Dean-o Says:

    Interesting experience. In the past I have had remarkably good luck using Priceline for reservations. Been able to set my own price, usually quite a bit below the discount market price and below the Priceline recommendations. And because they are quoting a price with nothing included the eventual rental company hasn’t pushed the insurance. Although it has been a couple years since I’ve done this.

    Further, in the latest AARP Magazine (yeah, some of us are old enough to qualify…) there is a great account of a “Rental Car Quandary”, a couple who rented a car from Enterprise, and got a bill a month later–after the fact–for close to $600 for damage to the air conditioner, not covered by warranty, that could not even be proved to have happened during their rental. Eventually settled, but only after approaching AARP, who in turn went up the chain of command at Enterprise, only getting satisfaction from someone in Corporate Communications.

  10. didaniel Says:

    Thanks, Dean. I don’t think reserving through Priceline makes a difference, but that you’ve been lucky to have ethical salespeople. Regardless of how you reserve, the insurance, gas fill-up, and other options are always presented in person at the end. It’s how they’re presented that matters. The ONLY time I felt trusting was when I used a kiosk and no person was there to push me. Then I had only myself to rely on. But even so, the button choices were set up with a logic that you would be choosing the add-on options. Nonetheless, you did have the choice, but you had to be alert. As to the damage claims you write about, I’ve heard of several occasions of that. I guess that’s a new issue. ARGH….

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