"The same thing happened to me!" came a loud chorus of feedback from more than a dozen readers after the Oct. 5 column about Antonia Balazs's ding-or-damage dispute with Enterprise Rent-a-Car.
From Harrisonburg to Chevy Chase, their point was nearly unanimous: Balazs's problem -- that Enterprise tried to charge her $300 after finding "three small scuffs" on her rental car's rear bumper when she returned the vehicle -- was not an isolated incident.
Copycat reader feedback to a column isn't unusual, but rarely are almost all the follow-up complaints about the same company doing the same thing, as in this case.
"When we returned the car, the employee from Enterprise found a microscopic scratch," recalls D.C. resident Jeff Jacobs, who rented from Enterprise's Georgetown location and was charged $180 for damage. Jacobs was so incensed that he passed out fliers about it outside the Enterprise office. After an hour, he says, a regional manager told him he'd get a $180 refund but also "that we would be put on a nationwide no-rent list. I told them that was fine because we would never rent from them again."
D.C. attorney John Daniel says Enterprise's Wheaton office charged him $100 for two tiny holes in the rear bumper three years ago. "The Enterprise agent, in the return walk-around, went directly to the bumper to spot the two minor holes," hidden by dirt and grime, he says. "The car had not collided or been bumped during the several days we had it under our care."
When asked about the reader feedback, Enterprise spokesman Lee Boughton at corporate headquarters in St. Louis said that much like-minded discontent was "unacceptable on many levels," and he promised an internal investigation.
"We are the largest rental car company in North America," says Boughton. He says that given the number of cars Enterprise rents, the company doesn't get that many complaints -- though he won't say how many. "We've actually conducted 27.5 million transactions in North America," he says. "Literally millions of transactions are made on an annual basis."
Boughton also suggests that Enterprise's localized approach to doing business makes its interaction with customers more hands-on. "Ninety-three percent of our business is basically in the home-city market where renters live in their locality and use us for leisure weekends . . . or their vehicle had an accident and they use us for a replacement car."
That's a "different proposition," he says, from customers who fly somewhere, rent a vehicle at the airport, return it there, then fly home. "We spend quite a bit of time with them," he says. "We do take the care to walk each renter around the vehicle and check its condition and get the customer to initial that contract, and then on its return, we walk around it again and agree on its condition. We go to some hefty lengths to try to minimize these types of situations."
John Daniel isn't placated. "Over the years I have rented from all the major rental companies -- Hertz, Avis, National -- and many of the discount companies, and I have never had an experience like the one with Enterprise," he says, vowing to never rent from Enterprise again.
By the way, those multi-copy car rental contracts you sign before they hand you the keys? They typically make it clear that the renter is personally responsible for any damage to the car.
The prospect is enough to drive some customers to buy the rental-car damage waivers the counter reps push that add $5 to $15 a day. Before doing that, check with your own automobile insurance company and your credit card company to see if you're already covered.
The new Electronic Retailing Self-Regulation Program last week announced its first action involving misleading or unsubstantiated direct-response marketing in television. The ad: Thirty-minute infomercials advertising "Slim in 6" and "6-Day Express Body" weight-loss programs. The marketer voluntarily agreed to add to each testimonial a qualifier that reports when weight loss took longer than the assumed six weeks and exactly how long it took to lose the pounds being reported.
WHERE TO LOOK
For tips on renting a car, see the Federal Trade Commission's Web site: www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/autos/carrent.htm.
Enterprise Rent-a-Car's Web site is www.enterprise.com/car_rental/home.do.
The Electronic Retailing Association's self-regulatory initiative investigates consumer complaints about false or misleading TV and radio advertising filed through its Web site at www.savvyshopper.org.
Got questions? A consumer complaint? A helpful tip? E-mail details to firstname.lastname@example.org write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.