There are two kinds of car rental damage claims. In the first case, you're aware that the car became damaged while you were renting it.
The second kind of claim is much sketchier.
Imagine that you drove the car without incident, returned it, paid your bill, and reasonably believed that your transaction was over—only to receive a hefty bill two months later with a vague claim that the vehicle had been damaged in your possession.
Since you declined the Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) when you rented the car, the rental company explains, you are now on the hook for repair costs as well as administrative fees and Loss of Use fees. The rental car company may or may not offer a description or proof of the damage.
Now you have three options: You can pay up, hand the claim off to your auto insurance company or credit card company, or reject the claim. If you choose the second or third option, you'll need to be prepared. Here's what to do.
How to Protect Yourself Against Car Rental Damage Claims
If you opt for the CDW when you rent the car, you're covered for any damage to the car. If you decline the CDW, you should take some just-in-case precautions.
- When you pick up your car, take a few minutes to look over the car before driving away. Get out your smartphone. If your camera has a timestamp function, turn that on. Take pictures of every dent, ding, and scratch on the vehicle's exterior and interior. Take photos of the wheels and the windshield. No pucker, crack or scratch is too small to document. Don't believe the rental agent when he tells you that small dents or scratches "an inch or smaller" don't count. You could be held accountable for those dents later on. Unless the car is brand new, there will likely be some damage you'll want to capture. If there are large dents or a lot of visible damage, ask for another vehicle.
- Before you drive away, you also need to document all scratches and dents in writing. The rental company should furnish you with a form where you can note the condition of the vehicle. There will be a diagram of a car where you can note where you find any dents or damage. Do not drive away before getting an employee to sign it and be sure to take a copy for yourself.
- When you return the car, don't just toss the keys to the agent and be on your way. Take another round of photos of the car's exterior and interior. Cover the same ground as you did when you picked up the car and pay attention to the windshield. Ideally, the before and after photos will be virtually identical.
- Ask the car rental agent to walk around the car with you. Use the inspection form you filled out when you picked up the car and ask the employee to sign off, confirming that the car was returned in the same shape as when you picked it up.
- Renting from Hertz? You may be able to resolve small damages on the spot.
- When you get the chance, download your photos to your computer or upload them to DropBox or the cloud for safekeeping. Don't discard these photos until six months have passed since you returned the car. Car rental companies rarely if ever file a claim after six months.
What to Do if You Receive a Damage Claim on a Rental Car
- Whether or not you are aware of damage to the car when you return it, the rental car company may make a claim that seems unreasonably high. Rental car companies sometimes try to charge you for damage for which they have little or no proof. Ask the company for a written description and photographic proof of the damage. Ask to see a repair bill.
- Did the rental company wait months before notifying you of the damage claim? Request the vehicle's utilization log, which is a record of every rental for that specific car since you rented it. If the company rented the vehicle many times since you returned it, demand proof that you, and not another driver, caused the alleged damage.
- If you are going to ask your personal auto insurance company or credit card to resolve the claim on your behalf, be sure to present all documentation, photos, and correspondence but keep a copy of everything for yourself.
If your rental car didn't suffer any damage while in your possession, it is unlikely that you will receive a dodgy damage claim. Still, it's better to be safe rather than sorry.