Car-rental broker admits letting down customers

Car-rental brokers are commonplace in travel. They act as intermediaries between travellers and car-rental suppliers. The usual practice is to take money from customers in return for a voucher for the class of car and duration of hire, to be picked up from the appointed supplier. But when Kate Harris of London turned up to collect her car in the south of France, the system failed.

Car-rental brokers are commonplace in travel. They act as intermediaries between travellers and car-rental suppliers. The usual practice is to take money from customers in return for a voucher for the class of car and duration of hire, to be picked up from the appointed supplier. But when Kate Harris of London turned up to collect her car in the south of France, the system failed.

"I hired a car through Autos Abroad for nine days in Nice. I prepaid with my Barclaycard and received a voucher and was told to go to National to obtain a car. When we tried to get our car we were told by National that they were not accepting Autos Abroad vouchers."

The story told by Ms Harris is typical of those received by The Independent about this car-rental broker. Autos Abroad is one of several names used by the Hire for Lower company; others are USA-Rent-A-Car, Direct Car Hire and Go Car Hire. The company is based in Archer Street, London W1.

Nick Marney, supplier contract manager for Hire for Lower, conceded that the company is in a "contractual dispute with car suppliers". Yet it is still advertising low-cost rental in holiday spots around the world, while disappointed customers wait for their money back.

Dave Thompson of Milton Keynes booked a car with Hire For Lower last autumn for a fly-drive holiday in California in Easter 2003. When he turned up at the Dollar desk at Los Angeles airport, he was told that Dollar was not honouring Hire for Lower prepaid vouchers. "They showed me a note from their head office to this effect which was dated three weeks previously. The manager indicated that the reason for Dollar's action was that Hire for Lower owed a large amount of money. Reluctantly I had to take out a separate booking with Dollar, which cost me $775," he said.

Marc Thornton, the managing director of Dollar UK, said: "I can confirm that we are currently in a contractual dispute with Hire for Lower and as a consequence are currently not accepting or honouring any of their vouchers at our locations in the USA."

Mr Thompson has been trying to recoup this unexpected £500 since his return home. Mr Marney of Hire for Lower said, "As far as I am aware a refund was sent out to Mr Thompson in cheque form on 21 June." But Mr Thompson said yesterday, "I have not yet received anything from them."

Kate Harris was promised a refund within 21 days. When it did not arrive, she contacted Barclaycard to put the amount into dispute. Mr Marney said her problem originally arose because, "We had stopped business with National at that time due to a contractual dispute", and said Ms Harris "should have been informed of this prior to her departure".

National's French operation is run by Citer. A company spokesman, Laurent Maurice, told The Independent, "Last year, we encountered some difficulties in getting our invoices paid. As of today, the debt is not settled and we have no payment schedule." Mr Marney of Hire for Lower concedes that the company had problems in the spring, but blames a "problem with our administration department" for the failure to honour the vouchers. He said: "Refunds are being given as long as proof of payment to the car supplier is provided; this takes 28 days." Evidence from readers of The Independent suggests that refunds are taking a lot longer.

Meanwhile, Mr Marney says, "We very much regret the stress caused to the customers who were affected by these problems and entirely hold up our hands as to have 'slipped' in our normally high levels of service."

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