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Getting Dinged For Dings

When you rent an apartment, you know you will lose some of your security deposit if you punch holes into the walls. No landlord, however, is likely to dock you for some scuffs on the floor.

The same is true with rental cars, but Hertz is trying to change that. When you return a car, Hertz employees walk around to check if there is any obvious damage, and, if there is, you get charged for it. Now Hertz wants to find a way to make you pay for less-obvious damage as well.

The company is experimenting with new technology that can photographically scan vehicles and compare their condition before and after rental. This way, Hertz can charge you for even those dents and dings that might not be apparent to the naked eye.

This policy may be fine for those who rent cars in order to sheath them in bubble wrap and park them in climate-controlled garages. If you rent cars in order to actually drive them, the Hertz plan is bad news.

Driving a car inevitably results in some wear and tear. When you rent a car, you are paying for the fact that the rental company will eventually have to replace it. You should not pay extra for damage unless you do something to the vehicle that does not qualify as ordinary use. If you tear off the door, yes, you have to pay. If you put a scratch on it, you should not.

Rental companies have always reserved the right to charge for any damage, no matter how minor. But as a practical matter, they do not. I have rented cars for 25 years during extensive travel for business and pleasure, within and outside the United States. I never take the companies’ expensive and often unnecessary collision damage waiver (CDW) option, and I have never been charged for any damage. Now I have to wonder whether Hertz, with whom I do most of my business these days, wants to change this.

At the very least, I am convinced, Hertz wants to prod me to pay $20 or more per day for its CDW coverage. I don’t need it. Like many people, I am covered for some rental damage under my personal auto policy, and I also have coverage under the credit cards I use to pay for my rentals. But a stricter policy may intimidate more renters into accepting the high-profit CDW.

While Hertz claims its system is aimed at saving time in addition to saving money, it’s really all about the money. Chairman and chief executive Mark Fissora told Bloomberg.com that his company loses about $170 million in damage payments a year, and he wants to get that money back.

Hertz is experimenting with the new system at an airport lot in the northeastern U.S. Frissora says that he expects the technology will keep “customers from being placed in a confrontational position.”

He may be in for a surprise. I, for one, will not put up with this sort of treatment. The first time Hertz charges me for immaterial damage will be the last time I rent from Hertz. I am perfectly willing to drive my own car long distances, which would spare me the inconveniences of airlines and airports as well as rental car counters. In many situations in which I have no choice but to fly, taxis and limo services are reasonable alternatives to rental cars. If dinging the customer for dings becomes an industrywide phenomenon, I will be doing a lot less renting in the future.

So, in the end, I am going to let Hertz put me in the driver’s seat. I just don’t know if it will be a seat in their car, or mine.

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