Renting a vehicle can be a stressful process for consumers who are not accustomed to the contracts, insurance decisions, credit card holds and inspections.
The last thing you want when on vacation, or dealing with another vehicle in the shop, is to have a dispute over damage or late return of a rental car.
More than 230 customers who rented from Hertz in the past decade have been hit with unexpected criminal charges, accused of stealing cars they contend they legally rented, paid for and in some cases returned years earlier.
Consumer advocates have tips for how to protect yourself from potential car rental headaches, fees or legal trouble.
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How much to rent a car? Maybe more than you think
Remember that the advertised rate may not be what you’ll actually pay. The Federal Trade Commission warns consumers to look out for possible fees and surcharges including early return fees, late return fees, airport surcharges, cost of gas whether paid upfront or filling up yourself, mileage limits, taxes, tolls, fees to drop off at a different location and additional driver fees.
Shop around for the best price — with taxes and fees included — for the size car you need.
What should you know about a rental car before driving it?
Document the car's condition when you pick it up and if you notice any existing damage, alert the rental company before leaving the lot.
"It's a drag, but I do think it's important to walk around the car," said Paul Bland, executive director of Public Justice, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization.
Document any damage on the car both with an employee and by taking photos on your smartphone.
Be aware that most rental car companies will put a hold on your credit or debit card, above and beyond the cost of the rental. This ensures that you have enough money to pay for any damages.
"They won’t process the blocked amount if you return the car as promised in your rental contract," the FTC website says. "If you’re near your credit limit or you have a low balance in your bank account when a block is placed, your card could be declined for additional purchases."
When talking to rental company, document everything
Document any conversations with rental company employees.
For example, if you call to extend your rental or report an issue, write down the time of the call, who you spoke with and what was said.
"If there is something important that is said verbally, try and write it down," Bland said. If there is a dispute, your phone records matched up with what you wrote down at that time could be helpful evidence.
How should I return a rental car?
Often you'll stand with an employee while they look over your car for any new damage. But sometimes, if you're returning a car after hours for example, there will simply be a drop box for the keys.
If that's the case, take photos of the car to show the condition it was in when you dropped it off. That way any allegation of damage can be compared. You'll also have a timestamp of when you returned the car to the lot.
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At least one Hertz plaintiff has a timestamped photograph of him returning his vehicle as evidence in his case.
Bland recommends keeping the paperwork and receipts from your rental for at least a year, although three years is the statute of limitations in most places for the kind of tort case that may arise from a rental car dispute.
How do I fight a rental car charge?
"The vast majority of rental car contracts, they have to go to arbitration," Bland said.
Arbitration is when a dispute is settled outside the courts by a third-party arbitrator whose decision the parties agree to follow.
Arbitration clauses are in place to protect rental car companies from class-action lawsuits. But if your claim is small enough, you may be able to choose small claims court instead of arbitration, Bland said.
"I personally would always choose small claims court over arbitration," he said. "The arbitrators are much more likely to be sort of corporate defense lawyers."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rental cars: Some Hertz customers face arrest. What are your rights?