Last summer, I went to Ireland with my family. We rented a car to drive along the west coast, from Connemara to Cork. But before we left the auto rental lot on our first day, my adult son walked slowly around our vehicle, making a video with his phone.
Smart kid, I thought. Now we had a record of every preexisting dent, scratch, and stain. If the rental company later tried to hold us responsible for any of it, we would have my son’s video to fight back.
Too bad Caron Welch and Robbin Wilson didn’t have someone like my son along when they rented a car in West Palm Beach, Fla., in September. It never occurred to them to make a video. And it definitely would have come in handy, because Alamo Rent a Car later claimed they did $1,075 in damage to their rental.
It was about two weeks after they returned home (Welch to Brewster, Wilson to Connecticut) that Alamo informed them it had found 13 chemical stains on the car, from hood to roof.
In corporate language that is both commanding and evasive, Alamo directed them to “remit payment in full” but without saying how the company knew Welch and Wilson were responsible.
“We did nothing to damage that car in any way,” Welch, 69, a retired elementary school secretary and grandmother of seven, told me.
And Alamo’s demand was at odds with what happened when the car was returned.
A young attendant walked around the vehicle, inspecting it before announcing that he was embarrassed the car had been allowed off the lot without being properly cleaned. He pointed to “water spots” all over it.
“We’re knocking $30 off your bill,” Welch recalled him saying. The receipt shows a $30 credit.
Now, suddenly, the “water spots” that warranted a refund had somehow morphed into “chemical stains” and a $1,075 bill.
Welch and Wilson are cousins. For more than 20 years, they have traveled together to Florida to visit Welch’s beloved dad, Chet (“the kindest, sweetest, funniest man ever”). This last trip was somber; Chet had died in September at age 95, and they had gone to close his estate and carry his ashes back to New England.
Wilson and Welch tried repeatedly on the phone to get Alamo to acknowledge it had made a mistake and to stop the barrage of letters addressed to Wilson. (She paid for the rental; Welch paid for the airfare, same as always.)
Last month, Wilson, 60, and Welch paid the $1,075 (half each) after some pretty strenuous efforts by Alamo and its debt collector. Wilson worried that to further dispute it would put her credit rating in jeopardy.
So, basically, Alamo frightened two women into paying for damage they insist was not done by them. Way to go, Alamo.
I suspect that, had Wilson replied that she had before-and-after videos of the car, Alamo would have folded.
Alamo said in an e-mail to me that the vehicle was returned with “significant chemical wash all over the body and roof.” How exactly did Alamo think that happened?
Alamo said it surmised that Wilson took the rental “somewhere for an inexpensive car wash” or used some chemical to wash it herself, apparently to clean away the water spots.
Welch and Wilson said no such thing happened.
“That’s ridiculous,” Wilson told me. “Absolutely not.”
How did Alamo conclude such a thing had happened?
It was based on “follow-up comments to us” made by Wilson, Alamo said.
“The only thing I said to them was: Why would I wash a car I had on a three-day rental?” Wilson said.
Alamo now says it will refund the money, offering an odd explanation in an e-mail.
“We now realize that, because the photographs are not as clear as they should be, the customer is not comfortable with the documentation provided.”
Wait a minute: Alamo is implying it provided photos to Wilson. That didn’t happen, Wilson told me. (And Alamo declined my request to see them.)
So, a reminder: When you rent a car, make a video.
Score one for snail mail
National Floors Direct has backed down and refunded Leo and Diane Walbourne’s $1,111 deposit for cancelling an order in February.
The Walbournes decided to cancel their contract within 24 hours, well within the three-day window allowed under the consumer protection law that governs contracts signed in your home.
But National made the silly argument it didn’t receive the cancellation notice in time, though the Walbournes mailed it within 24 hours and it was postmarked that day.
After their plight was featured in this column and the company was blasted with a torrent of criticism online, National’s check was suddenly in the mail — just like the Walbournes’ cancellation notice.
Going public worked
Don and Deborah Smith were featured in a column last month describing their heartbreaking effort to get Don, sick with terminal cancer, quick access to a medical marijuana dispensary.
As a result of the column, the Smiths were welcomed into a nearby dispensary in Central Massachusetts and the state promised to revise its procedures to make it easier for patients to immediately enter a dispensary after a doctor writes a prescription.
Last week, Don, 72, husband, father, house builder, and Vietnam vet, died, surrounded by family, his pain eased in the weeks before his death by the medical-grade marijuana he and Deborah fought to get for him.
This final public act gave him “the opportunity to fight yet one more battle and to help others through that fight,” Deborah wrote in an e-mail to me.