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Hertz hire from hell left stranded mother fuming

Company charged driver's credit card for full tank despite receipt proving she filled it, writes Maggie Drummond

Hannah Pearce was absolutely furious when a fortnight after returning from a summer holiday in Italy, Hertz, from which she had rented a car for the week, charged an extra amount on her credit card for a full tank of petrol.

Money net

Hannah Pearce was absolutely furious when a fortnight after returning from a summer holiday in Italy, Hertz, from which she had rented a car for the week, charged an extra amount on her credit card for a full tank of petrol.

"I had returned the car with a full tank", she said. "I had taken extra care to do so and kept the garage receipt because I was already very angry with Hertz."

At the start of her holiday she had been forced to take a car, booked and paid for, with a faulty petrol gauge. Ms Pearce, an environmental writer, said: "We arrived in Italy so late that I didn't want to argue and I was assured the car had a full tank to get me to my destination."

Two hours later, at 11pm, the car ran out of petrol and Ms Pearce was stranded with her four-year-old daughter, Lydia. She believes the tank must have been barely half-full when she started. She complained and eventually received a refund for the missing petrol and a Hertz voucher for $100, not nearly enough compensation, she reckoned. "It was a horrid start to my holiday," Ms Pearce said.

But that was not the end of the saga. She added: "Hertz had refused to give me back my credit card voucher before I left Italy because I was complaining. A few weeks later they used it to try to bill me, quite wrongly, for the extra petrol. Several people I know have experienced the same thing.Unauthorised extra charges are put on their credit cards by rental car companies who take their credit card details as insurance. The individual sums may be small. If you don't check your credit card statements that thoroughly you may not even notice them. I suspect that in some cases it is deliberate and adds up to a nice little earner for somebody. I got my money back, but I still think the whole thing stinks."

Hannah Pearce contacted The Independent after reading (19 January) how the Dollar car rental firm had billed my credit card for more than £10,000 last autumn claiming, wrongly, that I had not returned its vehicle. The story highlighted the situation that when you rent a car and give your credit card details as an insurance for the rental car company, you are effectively signing a blank cheque and the rental company is empowered to bill you up to the full cost of the car.

But some rental car companies are abusing the system, grabbing money from customer credit cards without notice or enquiry as soon as something goes wrong, even when the problem is caused by their own inefficiency. Or is it, as Hannah Pearce fears, more sinister?

Mike Lomax, a financial marketing consultant, rented a Hertz car in Mexico for a day and spent the next five months trying to get back the several thousands of dollars Hertz wrongly billed him. "I was taking my wife to a wedding and decided to drive rather than go on an internal flight," he said. "I arranged with Hertz to pick the car up at point A and drop it off at point B. I paid about £150 in the rental and drop-off charges and thought no more of it until a month or so later, I saw a bill on my American Express card for £2,000, quickly followed by one for £1,500. It was scary. American Express was very good at sorting it out, but it took from October to February and I spent a lot of time and money phoning and faxing overseas."

Like Hannah Pearce, Mr Lomax believes the open credit card system is being used for systematic overcharging. "I was wearing a suit because we were going to a wedding," he said. "I looked as if I was on business. I believe the people at the rental agency may have thought the charges were on a company account and no one would notice. From the point of view of the local operative, the worst that could happen was that someone did notice them and eventually their money would have to be returned."

Most banks and credit card companies do not admit to any problems. But Sarah Ring, at First Direct, said: "When customers complain about unauthorised charges on their credit card statements it almost always involves car hire or hotel bills. We don't get a lot of problems, but when we do it tends to be one of those two."

And Joanne Pyscorn, marketing director of the car rental broker Holiday Autos, said: "When car rental customers complain to us, unauthorised credit card charges are one of the biggest issues we deal with. I believe the customer is wide open to abuse because there is no regulatory body or code of practice for the car rental industry. The chairman of Holiday Autos, Clive Jacobs, has lobbied Government very energetically and tried to persuade the industry to adopt a voluntary code, but the big international car rental firms refuse to co-operate. They claim their own businesses are well managed and that is all the protection the consumer needs."

A code of practice as outlined by Ms Pyscorn would establish a complaints procedure and more guidance for customers. "For instance, people need more information about leaving a car out of hours," she said. "Car rental companies should not be allowed to extract money from your credit card without informing the customer first what it is for." Ms Pyscorn recommends that customers should keep all receipts – particularly the last petrol receipt – and make sure the car is inspected before you hand it back. She even suggests we should photograph the car when we hand it back. "That may sound a bit extreme," she admitted. "But I am often shocked at how casual car rental staff are when you return a vehicle.

"How can you prove you left it in good order once you have flown back home?"