Budget Rent a Car is under fire from several customers, who are going public to accuse the rental car giant of grossly overcharging them in B.C. for minor “damage” to vehicles.

The customers say they were made to pay for tiny dents and chips that were normal wear and tear, or not their responsibility.

“They are taking advantage of us,” said Wendy Chernoff, whose mother was made to pay a $300 insurance deductible by Budget in Port Coquitlam last winter, for a minor dent on a wheel rim.

In her case and others, the extra charges were put through credit cards retroactively, after the vehicles had been returned and checked in.

“We were under the understanding it was released and we had no problems. We didn’t realize there was an issue until at least an hour after — when the manager called.”

Chernoff said that at first Budget told her a cleaner had spotted the dent. Later, she was told it was reported by a subsequent customer.

“There have been so many different stories about when the damage occurred. If the vehicle had been damaged by us the [tire] would have been flat and they would have noticed it immediately,” she said.

“The fact that they have an ability to find damage after we have left … is so wrong.”

Other similar complaints

Go Public has heard from eight customers with similar stories, most of them about Budget's Vancouver airport location.

Connely Farr also got stung for the $300 deductible, after Budget claimed a tiny chip in the windshield — which Farr said was there from the start — cost $692 to fix.

He was also called about the damage after he had returned the car to the airport this summer.

“I said, ‘Can you prove to me that the car windshield was not chipped before I took it — since your guy didn’t even walk around with me?’ And the guy was like, ‘Yeah, we can send you images of the car before you rented it.’” said Farr.

I called [the Budget claims office] and the lady was like, ‘I can’t get you any photographs. We don’t even have those kind of photographs’… and I was like — this is shady.”

The Better Business Bureau has 70 recent complaints about Budget outlets in B.C., which it said show a “pattern.”

“Upon return of rental vehicles, some consumers allege Budget employees immediately perform vehicle inspections and note damage to vehicles that is either minor or pre-existing,” said a BBB report done in August.

“Consumers are then charged excessively for repairs performed by a repair shop at Budget's discretion. [They] have requested that the repair shop be identified and Budget has not provided that information.”

Budget does it all

Go Public discovered the repair company that charges for the work is Inland Transportation, which is owned by wealthy businessman Syd Belzberg.

He also owns Budget Rent a Car of B.C. Ltd., which oversees the 80 Budget locations in the province.

“That seems to be a big conflict of interest to me,” said Chernoff.

Allan Fung, who is listed on customer documents as the “independent” damage appraiser, is actually a Budget employee.

“Too close for comfort,” said Montreal businessman Marc Vaugeois, who rented from Budget at the Vancouver airport in April.

“The price that they are quoting [for repairs] — it’s up to them to choose. There is no third party in this situation.”

Budget in B.C. controls every aspect of this scenario. It sells the insurance, rents the cars, and then does its own damage appraisals and repairs.

Vaugeois was dinged for a “dimple” in the roof so insignificant, he said there is no way he could have seen it in Budget’s poorly lit parking lot – if it was there when he inspected the car at pickup.

His bill was $446, but he was fully covered under his premium credit card’s insurance.

“I returned the car around 8:40 [in the morning] and by 12:50 that day the damage had been evaluated by their estimator and it was repaired by the body shop,” said Vaugeois.

Dent too small to be seen

He said his credit card representative later complained the damage was invisible in the pictures sent by Budget.

“The way they inspected the vehicle … it was a CSI-type investigation,” said Vaugeois, “I mean there is depreciation — wear and tear.”

The most common complaint is from people who were made to pay close to $1,000 for windshield replacements, after Budget found minor chips in the glass.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Dean Yachison, from Winnipeg, who travels a lot on business.

His credit card provider was charged more than $900 in April for a small windshield chip, at Budget’s Vancouver airport location.

“When you’re at the airport, you’re in a rush and catching connecting flights — and they are holding you up. You’re stuck.”

Calgary couple Paul and Kim Ferguson were billed $966 for a pin-prick sized windshield chip in 2010 — again by Budget at the Vancouver airport.

“We were surprised at how quickly the two inspectors seemed to zero in on a small chip in the windscreen,” said Paul Ferguson.

“They told me that there was a "crack" in the window. I told them it was a small chip and easily repaired and that I did not recall any stone hitting the windscreen.”

Costly windshield repairs

Budget’s repair facility is right at the Vancouver airport. Go Public watched as mobile glass repair vans came and went. The owner of a major windshield repair company told us it costs rental car fleets far less to replace a windshield than what Budget bills for.

“Regardless of the vehicle, they are getting original equipment manufactured quality products installed into their fleet for prices in the $200 to $300 range,” said Glass Doctor owner John Goldsmith.

He said that quite often replacements aren’t even needed and that most small stone chips can simply be repaired — to top safety standards — for $50 or less.

“The strength of the windshield is vital. A stone chip repair restores that integrity to the windshield,” said Goldsmith.

“We’ve had customers who’ve rented a rental car company car and they will come here first and have the repair done before returning the vehicle so they don’t get dinged with that big bill.”

Go Public asked to interview Budget B.C.’s owner Belzberg about all of this, but was told he is not available. When we went to Budget’s head office in Richmond with a camera to try to talk to the general manager, Greg Harrison ordered us out of the building.

“You are going to have to leave the premises,” said Harrison. “I am not talking to you.”

Harrison later sent a statement, which confirmed that Budget does its own repairs.

“To ensure thorough, efficient repairs and minimal downtime for our fleet, many of our repairs and other mechanical work are done by Inland Transportation, a sister company which is certified and accredited by ICBC,” the statement said.

It also indicated Budget charges for any damage it finds that was not noted by the customer initially.

“The customer ... signs off on the vehicle ready report before taking the vehicle. When the vehicle is returned, we inspect it again for any damage using the customer’s signed vehicle ready report as the basis for comparison.”

Customers turned off

The Consumer’s Association of Canada advises people to take time to inspect vehicles thoroughly before taking them out. It also suggests using a credit card with a very low limit and even videotaping the condition of vehicle at pickup and when the car is returned.

The Budget customers we talked to have another solution.

“I won’t use them ever again,” said Chernoff, who complained to the Better Business Bureau. After she did, Budget promised to remove some of the charges on her mother’s card, but Chernoff said that never happened.

“We’ve attempted to deal with the credit card company. We’ve attempted to deal with Budget. We’ve attempted to deal with the Better Business Bureau and yet here I am.”

“I will never rent from Budget ever again,” said Vaugeois.

Submit your story ideas to Kathy Tomlinson at Go Public

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