rental car

The author says that vehicle rental poses another opportunity for scammers to separate us from our money. They are well aware that when we fly to a vacation spot, we almost always need to rent a vehicle. They are also aware that rental cars now are marketed at a significantly greater cost. Weekly rentals a year ago were available for under $250; the same rental cars today are running over $1,000.

Fraud awareness and avoidance when shopping begin with a few key pieces of advice: If it sounds too good to be true ... don’t let emotion rule over decision-making, don’t give in to crowd mentality, and don’t let scarcity dictate your behavior.

With the rapid return to “normal” from the pandemic, these cautions have become key to surviving the flood of scams. Based on reports from law enforcement, a significant number of scams appear to have grown in relation to vacation travel.

Recently, this column warned about fraud occurring in the promotion of vacation hospitality locations. Vehicle rental poses another opportunity for scammers to separate us from our money. They are well aware that when we fly to a vacation spot, we almost always need to rent a vehicle. They are also aware that rental cars are now marketed at a significantly greater cost. Weekly rentals a year ago were available for under $250; the same rental cars today are running over $1,000.

The Federal Trade Commission recently issued warning regarding fake car companies, websites and customer service departments that have the look and feel of legitimacy. The catch: most ask for prepayment with gift cards or debit cards (legitimate rental companies request credit card numbers and, in fact, many will not accept debit cards).

The scam scenario looks something like this:

You need to rent a car for summer vacation in Colorado, so, you do a general Google search with your browser for “rental cars.” The search reveals 3,840,000,000 results in under 1 second! Wow!

Of course, you see the usual companies (e.g., Hertz, Avis, Alamo), as well as travel consolidators (e.g., Priceline, Expedia, Travelocity). But, you also see names you likely do not recognize.

Prominently featured in the results are prices you can hardly believe, so, you click on the website link, where you see attractive cars at very low prices. The website provides a toll-free number to contact customer service, where you can verify the fee and prepay with a debit card or gift card.

In addition, the webpage displays several testimonial statements from happy customers. Once again, wow! You provide debit card information and receive a confirmation number. Two weeks later, at the airport arrival, you discover that the rental company doesn’t exist and the money is gone.

This scenario is playing out for travelers nationwide. How do you avoid the scam?

Begin with the key pieces of advice: Is this too good to be true? Did you allow emotion over the opportunity to overtake logic? Did you give in to crowd mentality, as exhibited by the testimonials? Was the scarcity of rental cars driving your decision?

If the answer to one or more of these is yes, you’ve fallen “under the ether,” a heightened state of emotion.

The FTC provides some very clear recommendations when renting a car:

• Research the company (not using its website).

Enter the company name in your browser address line with the word “scam,” “review” or “complaint” to see if any negative record or bad customer experiences are noted. Visiting the website for Tripadvisor, Consumer Reports or the Better Business Bureau can be helpful, and if there are no results for the company ...

• Verify deals with the company directly.

Scammers are very capable of creating look-alike websites, so, contact the company using its official website. Do not use a search engine, as the criminals can actually pay to have their website appear at the top of listings.

• As noted previously, use a credit card — never gift cards or debit cards. Aside from fringe benefits (insurance coverage and rewards), credit card charges can be disputed. Gift card and debit card money can disappear without a trace.

As with so many of our activities today, we need to apply vigilance, and possibly a degree of skepticism, in order to avoid becoming a victim of fraud. Happy and safe travels!

Want a free list of fraud-fighting resources? Questions? Comments? Contact me a egreenblott@aarp.org.

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator and coordinator of the AARP Vermont Fraud Watch Network. He hosts a CATV program, “Mr. Scammer,” distributed by GNAT-TV in Sunderland, Vt.: gnat-tv.org.