I was stupid at the car rental counter. I didn't ask the right questions before my wife and I drove away in our vacation rental.
"Are there toll roads around here?"
"How much does your toll road transponder cost?"
"Any other options?"
You've probably heard how car rental companies are making a killing by tacking on fees to small highway tolls. A $1 toll can mushroom into $60.
That's what happened to me.
All through New England, I was paying the tolls with cash. But that one time, I slipped up. Went into the wrong lane. The tollbooth employee — remember them? — told me to open the transponder on my windshield.
"Aw man, that's going to cost us big time," I told my wife as we drove away.
That $1 toll cost me 60 big ones. Dollar Rent a Car charged me for a week's worth of usage.
What would you do?
I preach tactics needed to overcome stubborn companies, so when something like this happens, it makes me gleeful. I get to practice what I preach. Do my strategies work?
Here's how I fought Dollar for, ironically, a $1 charge that ballooned:
Step 1: I go to the fine print of my rental contract and find this phrase, "If you decline the optional PlatePass All-Inclusive service at the commencement of the rental period ..."
Aha! Decline? The rental employee never asked. There's my rationale for challenging. They violated their own rules.
Step 2: I write my introductory letter to the CEO. Here's what happened, sir, as a courtesy to you, before I file a complaint for deceptive trade practices with the attorney general in your company's home state. Sincerely, yours. But the letter is returned to me as undeliverable. I call Dollar, get another address, and mail it again.
Step 3: The letter is never answered. I don't bluff. I go online and file complaints, as promised, at the websites of the Texas AG (because I live here) and the Oklahoma AG (because that's where I believe the company is headquartered).
Step 4: Oklahoma passes my complaint to Florida authorities because that's where the true mothership of the corporation is based. Florida assigns my file a case number (ouch, because now it's serious!) and promises to look into it.
Step 5: On a quiet Sunday afternoon (football season hadn't started yet), I decide to tweet my displeasure to Dollar, also known as @DollarCars.
I begin gently: "Note to me: I won't be using @DollarCars again. Ignored my deceptive trade practice complaint."
@DollarCars writes back: "We are sorry about this, Dave. We are always here to help."
I tweet back that the company never responded to my letter.
"When did you send this?" @DollarCars asks in a private message. "I am not showing anything under your name in our cases."
She introduces herself — Jane — and asks me to send another copy of my letter. I do.
In a bit, she contacts me again. Because my letter wasn't answered, because I wasn't presented with options, a full refund is coming my way.
Step 6: I hear from Florida authorities that because I received a $72 refund, my case file is closed.
$72? It was only $60. I check my credit card statement. Yes, I made a small profit.
I tweet my victory: "Of all the means I tried, Twitter worked the best."
A national problem
The big car rental companies and their subsidiaries face criticism for their toll payment policies. Avis, which owns Budget and Payless, settled with the Florida attorney general (giving my complaint to Florida even more juice). The legal action against the companies forces them to disclose fees at the counter and on their websites.
Hertz, which owns Dollar and Thrifty, is being sued in San Francisco because toll trips across the Golden Gate Bridge are heavily inflated.
The lawsuit claims that Hertz didn't tell customers about options. Sound familiar?
Stand up to big firms
How many consumers dash to Twitter for relief? More than you'd expect.
In Dollar's case, there's a @DollarCarsSuck account. Other hashtags are #DontRentFromDollar #AnyoneButDollar and #NeverDollar.
You can be sure the company monitors them, too.
@Brianh442: "Just got CRAZY bill from @DollarCars 4 toll bills in VA. 4 tolls@ $1.65=$6.60. 4 Admin fees@$15.00=$60. Total bill $66.60 #Moneygrab!!"
The response: "Brian, we apologize for any misunderstanding about our PlatePass service partner and would love to help."
Tag me on tweets
Remember the strategy. Warn the company you're about to file a deceptive trade practice complaint with the state attorney general. Then do it and get a case number. If that doesn't work fast enough, play with Twitter on a Sunday afternoon.
For Twitter beginners, my friend, Cathy Turney, has written a new book: Get 10,000+ Twitter Followers Easily, Quickly and Ethically. She shows how to set up accounts, manage them and bring in new followers.
And if you use Twitter to fight companies, go ahead and tag me — @davelieber — so I'll see it. I can share with my followers, giving you more juice.
Turns out that a tweet, often enough, is truly mightier than the sword.
Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.
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