In retrospect, Eileen McMonigal believes she looked like the perfect target for a scam. She had recently fractured an ankle, so when her flight arrived in Tampa, Florida, she needed a wheelchair to get around the airport. A young escort helped collect her belongings, which included carryon luggage and a puppy in a travel carrier.

"The psychology of the system is to drive customers through the process without any analysis." - John Mattes.

By the time she made through the lengthy line at the Dollar Rent A Car counter, her escort was itching to complete his duties and she was tired from her trip. A six-day vacation lay ahead, and more than anything, just wanted to get her rental car and be on her way.

And that's the precise point in the transaction where McMonigal and hundreds of other Dollar Rent A Car customers say the company duped them into signing for insurance coverage they explicitly said they did not want.

"I certainly looked like someone you could take advantage of, sitting in a wheelchair, my lap is burdened with several things, an anxious guy behind me, and I have white hair," she said. "The guy at the counter was mumbling, and there was a sense of 'let's get moving.' I stuck the envelope in the car and drove off."

It'd be easy for skeptics to dismiss McMongial, a suburban PIttsburgh resident, as a befuddled elderly driver who didn't understand the written agreement. But hundreds of complaints filed in lawsuits and with consumer organizations detail remarkably similar complaints regarding experiences with Dollar Rent A Car.


At Risk: Elderly, Foreign Visitors, Parents

Consumers say the company takes advantage of them at the most vulnerable times – when they've waited in a long line at an airport – and charge them hundreds, and in some cases, thousands, of dollars.

While the scope of alleged victims stretches across all ages and demographics, elderly drivers, foreign visitors and parents who are easily distracted by young children at the counter account for disproportionate numbers of the complaints. Customers who have longer rental periods are also more susceptible to being targeted, said John Mattes, an attorney representing plaintiffs in two class-action lawsuits against Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group.

It's often not until the customers return to the airport they realize they're on the hook for unexpected charges that often amount to hundreds or thousands of dollars.

"The first reaction customers have to this is they feel somehow they were hoodwinked and tricked, and then they are embarrassed and humiliated," Mattes said. "But they shouldn't be, because this is a scheme that has worked very well to make Dollar millions of dollars. The psychology of the system is to drive customers through the process without any analysis."

Here's how they say the process works: Once customers reach the counter, agents sign them up for add-ons like collision-damage waiver, loss-damage waivers roadside-assistance programs they specifically say they don't want. In many cases, the customers have already checked with their own car-insurance companies to confirm rentals are covered by their own policies or they've already purchased insurance through services like Priceline.com or Hotwire.com.

There's often confusion over whether a customer wants to waive coverage or wants the waiver. Contracts can review and sign the contract on an electronic signature pad like the ones commonly seen at grocery stores, where the type may be small and difficult to read. Once it's signed, agents print the contract, immediately fold it closed, stuff it in an envelope, and as they hand it to the renter, they call the next customer to the counter.

It's often not until the customers return to the airport they realize they're on the hook for unexpected charges that often amount to hundreds or thousands of dollars. And again, they're in a vulnerable position – in a rush to catch their return flight.

"When you get back and say, 'Wait, this isn't right, they say that if you have any problem, you have to go to the office," said McMonigal, whose unwanted add-ons cost $202.93 on top of the basic rental charges. "So I went in there, and the young girl says, 'This happens all the time, especially when travel agents make the reservation.' But that doesn't make sense, because I said no to the additional insurance."



Complaints Come From Across Nation

She's not alone. The Florida Attorney General's Office says it is investigating Dollar's business practices after receiving a high number of complaints, particularly from travelers using the Tampa and Orlando airports. A spokesperson from the agency would not provide details of the investigation to Autoblog, and would only say that it is ongoing.

Mattes said travelers flying into the Denver International Airport have also logged a high number of complaints. But it's not isolated to those three airports: A lawsuit filed in Colorado's US District Courts alleges travelers at 44 different US airports have been scammed. Affected airports include big cities like Los Angeles, New York and Tampa to smaller ones in Spokane, Tucson and Little Rock.

"I know better than anyone that to purchase your insurance would have been a waste of money and totally unnecessary." - Michael Nellis


Among the complaints:

Last month, a woman flew from China to watch her son graduate from the University of Iowa. She made her reservation on Priceline.com and prepaid for insurance there. Despite a language barrier, Caixia Lai tells an Iowa television station her intent was clear that she did not want extra insurance when asked at the Des Moines airport rental location. Her total price was supposed to be $1,177.30. But Dollar charged her more than $3,528 overall, maxing out her credit card. If not for an undercover investigation conducted by WHOT-TV, she doubts she would have received a refund and worries she would have been stranded in the United States.

On May 9, 2014, Salvador Duenas picked up a car in Los Angeles for a 10-day rental. He had made the arrangements via a travel agent in Mexico who already included charges for the insurance. "The counter agent did not explain what he was doing," Duenas wrote in his complaint. "I give him the reservation I had, but it looks like a new one. He asked me to sign on the electronic tablet, and that's it."

Michael Nellis, one of the two named plaintiffs in the Colorado class-action, says he declined all insurance and prepaid gas offers at the airport in Fort Myers, Florida, letting the clerk know the full coverage on his own policy covered rental cars. "The print was small and the room was darkened," he wrote. "I trusted her to charge me as I was instructed. ... I believe I was scammed and cheated intentionally."

He was charged $482.51 when he believed the charges would be $223.29. Nellis writes that he knows better than most how the system should work, because he's a retired insurance adjuster and used to handle claims for Enterprise Rent-A-Car. "I know better than anyone that to purchase your insurance would have been a waste of money and totally unnecessary," he wrote.

Jamal Powell, a former Dollar employee, told San Diego's ABC-10 last year such practices are enticing for employees, because they receive commission for selling add-on services. "It's a really big deal," he said, "because as a rental agent, 95 percent of that money that you make is from the commission."

In a written statement, Anna Bootenhoff, a spokesperson for Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group, tells Autoblog that, "Dollar prides itself on complying with all laws. We deny allegations that the company sells customers products they don't want, and we intend to defend the cases referenced vigorously."



Complaints Are Well-Documented

What angers Mattes and customers who say they were defrauded is what they see as the brazen actions of the company. The complaints have been ongoing for roughly four years – and they're not much of a secret. The New York Times examined the allegations in an article published on April 5, 2013, and Autoblog sister site AOL Autos followed on April 8, 2013.

Auto Rental News, a trade publication that writes about the rental-car business, detailed the California class-action lawsuit against Dollar in a November article that discussed the best practices of the industry in using electronic signature pads. It noted the judge in the California class-action suit allowed the case to proceed, writing in his opinion that Dollar's "conduct is more than mere endemic dishonesty."

"I certainly looked like someone you could take advantage of, sitting in a wheelchair, my lap is burdened with several things, an anxious guy behind me, and I have white hair." - Eileen McMonigal.

Despite the attention, the complaints continue to arrive. The Better Business Bureau says it has closed 852 complaints regarding Dollar over the past three years, including 357 in the past 12 months. On ConsumerAffairs.com, the latest complaint arrived Thursday morning from a woman who rented a car in Louisville, Kentucky.

"I am in my 60s and this is NOT by any stretch my first car rental," she wrote. I traveled for the company I worked for (Procter and Gamble) for over 25 years ... this is the FIRST time I have ever had a problem.

"When the paperwork was ready BEFORE I signed it, I said again, "Now, I do not need nor want the insurance. She said, "I know, all you need to do is sign.'" When she returned the car, she had an additional charge for $194 in unwanted insurance.

Mattes says there's a simple solution that would eliminate ambiguity in the rental process. At the end of the checkout process, the agent could tell a customer the expected total payment at the end of the rental period. Asked if such a process could be implemented, or if Dollar had considered adopting a similar approach across its channels, a Dollar spokesperson did not respond.


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  • 36 Comments
      BipDBo
      • 4 Months Ago

      It's not just dollar.  In particular, Thrifty also has their schemes which I saw when I flew into Las Vegas a few weeks ago.
      For one thing, they are tricky with their words.  They'll say, "Do you want standard insurance or deluxe insurance."  The question gives you a choice of two plans, when you should respond, "No insurance."  Then the salesman acts bewildered and lists a bunch of "facts" that simply are not true to scare you into getting far overpriced insurance.
      Another thing that Thrifty did was to downgrade own car.  When we reserved, the third party site (orbitz, Travelocity, etc) had classes for economy, compact, midsize, etc.  We reserved a compact, advertised as Ford Focus or similar, which was a little bit more money than economy (Chevy Spark or similar).  When I got there, the car options they had for me was a Hyundai Accent or Nissan Versa, both economy cars, not compact.  Their response was that they don't have two separate classes, economy and compact, just one class; compact.  That of course did not translate to the third party site, so I got stuck with the crappier ar.  The Versa was alright, but seriously lacked power.  Passing in hilly areas took planning.  A Focus, which is what I paid for, would have been much more enjoyable.
      To my sham, the guy behind the Thrifty convinced me to get the pre-paid gas.  He did this by lying to me about the gas prices around town.  I pulled out my phone to look up gasbuddy, but it was slow in loading, so I uncovered the lie a bit too late.  In the end, though, I only lost maybe five bucks on that gamble, not the worst gambling loss you can expect in Vegas.

      ffelix422
      • 4 Months Ago

      Dollar/Thrify is on life support. National, Hertz, etc are driving it away.

      With practices like this I hope they die even quicker. This is crap! 

      BipDBo
      • 4 Months Ago

      Another problem with rental car companies; they don't seem to understand the purpose of reservations.
      reservations

      Si5000
      • 4 Months Ago *Edited*

      Exact same thing happened to us at Dollar in Orlando in June...

      I was asked by the desk what type of 'coverage' I wanted.  Did I want basic or advanced.  I said I didn't want to pay for advanced.  I didn't realise at the time that the 'basic' coverage was optional!  This fact was not mentioned and I feel completely deceived by the desk who were clearly trying to get more money from us!  I've since read their on-line reviews and realise Dollar tell you coverage is a legal requirement in Florida and must be taken!  This is completely untrue!  Dollar are mis-selling to deceive customers.

      In addition, I asked for a Florida SunPass to be included, this was never added, again I did not realise until it was too late and we were in the car. 
      Finally, getting hold of a car in the garage was difficult.  We eventually found a Dollar staff member and were told we could take a car from the 'Compact' row, but when we got there the only cars available were 'economy'.  We raised this problem (again finding it difficult to find staff) who told us to just take an 'economy'.  I explained we'd paid for a 'compact', we'd like one please.  The chap was very unhelpful and told us we'd have to wait!  Nearly 40 minutes before a 'compact' was brought out!  It seemed they hoped we would get annoyed with the wait and take the economy.  
      The whole hire car cost doubled because of the insurance.  Not pleased! Dollar you suck!
        dohc73
        • 4 Months Ago
        @Si5000

        Exactly how it went for me. See my comment. Real sleazy tactics. 

      Pip Carlson
      • 4 Months Ago

      I feel like this has been going on for a long time and isn't just limited to Dollar. Not saying what Dollar is doing is right but rent-a-car places give commissions based on insurance so the pressure is high to sell them. Even if they only "sell" them. I rent with National and have declined insurance so many times, I'm never asked anymore. It's great.

      Hertzhatesme
      • 4 Months Ago
      By the way, forgot to mention another important info: Most of the major credit cards do provide insurance for car rental already, so that says most of the renters are covered from his/her own car insurance and the credit card company. 
      chilllllls
      • 4 Months Ago

      As someone who works in auto insurance, I'm not surprised about this and can say that it occurs with every major car rental company. It may occur more frequently with Dollar than the others because of the way that Dollar incentivizes their employees to do this, but every car rental company that I've dealt with is deliberately opaque about offering CDW/SLP/PAI because they are exorbiantly expensive. A lot of the time we're able to get these charges waived if our insured returns the vehicle without any damage just because of the weight we can throw around (volume of rentals) but the BBB really should've examined this issue in greater depth a long time ago. 

      Hertzhatesme
      • 4 Months Ago

      Another MAJOR scam from the rental car companies is the ridiculous "non-smoking" policy.  Not once but a few times, they would say the vehicle smell like cigarette so I will be charged for $250 "cleaning fee" even I told them I don't smoke at all, there is no other evidence besides the "smell" (have no idea what exactly they refer to by "cleaning" because the rental cars especially from Dollar are always dirty inside, I even found a hypodermic needle inside the middle console after I left the rental location!!) ..... Here are 2 things you could do if it ever happen to you and also this apply to hotel as well: 1)  Politely ask the rental rep explain what "cigarette" smell like exactly? Most of the time they will just keep repeating the same sentence "it just smell like cigarette" then tell them you think it smell like something else like a car or even yourslef lol  ... That's just something for fun so there is only one and only one option we all have .. simply call your credit card issuer right in front of them and request a stop payment for that particular charge.  But the backfire is the rental company most likely will put you on their blacklist as I am already on Hertz and all the smaller companies under Hertz 

      dohc73
      • 4 Months Ago

      Holy F! This just happened to me LAST WEEK while in Florida with DOLLAR!

      The Dollar rep was as nice as pie and tried to distract me with his personal stories, then he manipulatively asked if I wanted the standard insurance or upgraded insurance, but never to waiver the insurance. he made it sound like the standard insurance was saying "no" I didn't want any insurance, which is what I wanted; no extra insurance. Fortunately, the bill is itemized in front of you before you sign and my $113 dollar five-day rental, all of a sudden was a $275 rental which I immediately made him change. He also tried to convince me to take the pre-paid full tank return price which he claimed was comparable to the prices at the gas stations, which they weren't and also declined. 

      At that point, his nice-guy attitude got slightly sour and he warned me that I need to get my fuel within 2-miles of the airport with proof of receipt or it would be.....at that point I couldn't understand what he was saying because it was utter bullsh*t and he made no sense. Creepy a-hole.

      I never had this problem with Hertz or Avis, but Dollar was the cheapest that week. 

      The car was dirty though and had a lot of miles on it. Whatever, cheaper for a reason. 

      Side note: it was a Ford Focus and the auto-tranny was atrocious. What a horrible transmission.  



      b.rn
      • 4 Months Ago

      Kudos to the staff at the Hertz counter for correcting the Dollar staff.

      Confabulate Florida
      • 4 Months Ago

      I just had this happen Monday (8/18/14) in Orlando.  My boss was with me when I picked up the rental car and is witness to the fact that I declined all insurance and yet still the insurance ended up on the bill.  Ironically, clicking through the screen to sign the contract, there was something that snuck in on the 4"x4" screen they have you sign; I asked the desk clerk to go back and he basically refused.  The kicker here is that they can extend your rental car reservation over the phone, but in order to remove a driver or cancel a service you have to return to the rental counter.  I'd assume that the car is more of an asset to their company, yet they're so intent on defrauding their customers with erroneous charges that they make it virtually impossible to make modifications to your contract (aside from extending a rental) over the phone. (If you call to extend your reservation - make sure that you argue to make sure they keep you at the same daily rate that they have on the contract.  There should be no additional fees (they add a $15 fee to the daily rental amount if you extend.) 


      I called the customer service number when I was extending and realized that the insurance I declined on the bill was added.  While on the phone, I was also doing a Google search and found millions of other complaints.  I said to the customer service representative, "you've got one hell of a Class Action lawsuit headed your way" and the representative actually chuckled like, "yeah, I hear that every day". 


      *A tip to those traveling through Orlando.  If you're renting a car from Orlando Airport location and you happen to have an older Australian gentleman help you at the counter - I would either avoid him or make sure that he's not adding anything additional to your bill.  Make sure to go slowly and read everything. 

      jcar302
      • 4 Months Ago

      Over the last couple of years i've had many rental cars, and i have to say it's extremely confusing.  I usually get the insurance out of fear, but i've yet to see if it's really necessary. (if anyone knows, speak up).

      No matter which company you use, it's not fun.

      With that said, dollar is my worst experience to date. I would NOT use them again.

        Jay
        • 4 Months Ago
        @jcar302

        Read your insurance policy. No one on here can tell you what it says. Most mainstream policies state that you are covered (minus your deductibles) for any car you rent in the US or Canada. 

          BillyM67
          • 4 Months Ago
          @Jay

          He's talking about rental insurance. Try reading and stop rushing to be an smart a$$.

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