(USA TODAY) - Rental car companies have become increasingly vigilant about damage to their vehicles, many frequent renters say.
The companies, they say, are noting scratches and minor damage that may have been overlooked in the past and are more readily assessing charges for damage.
"Most agents look over the car now when returned and question every little scratch," says frequent business traveler Neil Van Walbeck of Toledo, Ohio.
The rental companies say their policies have remained consistent and that vehicles are damaged in only a small percentage of rental transactions. However, the companies say, that small percentage can total a million or more damaged vehicles annually.
Enterprise Holdings, the nation's largest auto rental company, says its three brands - Enterprise, National and Alamo - make more than 50 million rental transactions a year and up to 1 million involve a damaged vehicle.
Avis Budget says it makes more than 25 million rental transactions each year, and "tens of thousands" of its vehicles are damaged.
Dollar Thrifty wouldn't answer questions about damaged vehicles.
"Damages range from dents to missing equipment and from windshield cracks to total losses and unrecovered thefts," says Enterprise Holdings spokeswoman Laura Bryant.
The most common damages are "minor dents, scratches, and glass and bumper damage, with the vast majority of these claims under $1,000," she says.
Renters who buy an auto rental company's collision-damage waiver - or have it provided by a credit card issuer - usually won't be billed for loss or damage to a vehicle, the companies say. They could be billed if they drove recklessly or violated terms of the rental agreement or credit card policy.
Bryant says that in more than two-thirds of Enterprise rentals that are damaged, repair costs are covered by insurance companies, employers or other third parties.
A contract is a contract
If damage wasn't caused by a renter, the renter is still responsible if the damage occurs while he or she is renting a vehicle, auto rental companies say.
"In signing the rental contract, customers agree to be responsible for any damage that occurs during the rental period, regardless of whether they or a third party caused the damage, just as would be the case with their own vehicle," Bryant says.
Many frequent renters, though, say they've been billed for damage that didn't occur while they had the car.
Frequent renter Bobby Keenom of Meeker, Okla., says a National employee climbed onto the roof when he returned an SUV to National at Phoenix's airport in April. There were scratches, a small dent and rope burn marks.
"I was in town on business and had no reason to put anything on the roof," Keenom says. "He didn't care and said it was policy. I am still fighting this claim."
Another National renter, Matthew Hutchings, says he returned an undamaged car to the airport in Wichita, Kan., last year, and three weeks later received an invoice for windshield damage.
"I drove the car with a business colleague across the parking lot from the airport to the Wichita Hilton and never went over 15 miles an hour," says Hutchings, a medical sales director from St. George, Utah. "I am confident when I returned it back to the airport - again driving across a parking lot to the airport - there was no windshield damage."
Hutchings says he disputed the charge "many times," but "they charged my credit card anyway." His company's insurance company paid about $200 to settle the matter, he says.
Avis Budget spokesman John Barrows says that, if any company employee knowingly makes a false accusation of a customer damaging a vehicle, it "would constitute a violation of our employee code of conduct and be treated very seriously."
Such an employee could be fired, he says.
Who should check?
Besides complaints about increased damage vigilance and invalid damage claims, some frequent renters complain that it shouldn't be customers' responsibility to note every scratch or dent on a vehicle.
Van Walbeck says rental companies should inspect their vehicles and provide a sheet listing damages.
Renters also can do inspections, and take photos with their smartphones to protect themselves.
Washington-based business traveler Anne Seymour says inspecting a vehicle is "a total pain" and "time suck." During several rentals, she documented minor scratches in car rental lots and had to return to an airport terminal rental desk.
"Ugh," she says. "If they were customer-centric, they would have staff accompany you to the car and be with you as you do car review."
Hertz spokeswoman Paula Rivera says inspections before a car leaves and when it returns are "designed to help Hertz ensure customers aren't held accountable for pre-existing damage" and "to identify damage that occurred during the rental."
Enterprise's Bryant says many renters - except road warriors hurrying at the airport - "seem to appreciate" the process of inspecting a car before they drive away.
"We encourage customers to point out any concerns they might have before leaving the lot, so we have a mutual understanding of the vehicle condition before the rental begins," she says.
By Gary Stoller, USA TODAY