The surge in recreational travel due to the lifting of pandemic restrictions and scarce rental cars got the criminals out this summer, consumer watchdogs say.
The Federal Trade Commission, as well as consumer groups and car rental companies, warn travelers about programs that trick them into booking fake reservations through fake customer service numbers and websites.
The problem is that rental car companies have been whipped into the pandemic, dealing first with a sudden and persistent drop in demand and now an equally sudden surge in bookings. The result is higher prices and greater challenges in reserving cars during peak hours in popular tourist areas. That can leave customers vulnerable to bogus offers that don’t just sell the car at a seemingly cheaper price, said Emily Wu, an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer and Business Education division.
“There are far fewer rental cars,” said Ms. Wu.
Recent complaints to the AARP Fraud Watch Network and the Better Business Bureau describe similar systems. In some cases, consumers only realized they had been scammed until they showed up at the rental desk to find out that their reservation had not been recorded.
The sequence can begin when a shopper searches online for a generic term such as “cheap rental cars,” said Amy Nofziger, director of victim support for the AARP Fraud Watch Network. You call the number that comes up when you search it thinking it belongs to a legitimate car rental company, but it turns out to be a fake.
Fake car rental usually insists that the caller make a reservation by paying with a gift card or prepaid debit card and say that the card has a special promotion or discount associated with it.
Once the caller buys a card and gives their PIN to the fake agency, the criminal can quickly convert the card into cash, leaving the consumer with no money or a car.
It may be hard to understand why someone falls for such a trick, but criminals can play with people’s emotions, Ms. Nofziger said. People may not have realized that renting a car is expensive this year and are worried about finding an affordable vehicle and taking their family on vacation.
Complaints on the Better Business Bureau website indicate that the scams involve both no-name companies and impersonators posing as branded retailers. Reported losses range from $ 200 to $ 800.
One of the complaints from early June was about a phone call purporting to be a budget. The consumer paid $ 280 using a prepaid Visa card. When he could not reach the number again – the line was always busy – he found and called the actual budget number and learned that no reservation had been booked and that he should report the fraud to the authorities.
Another complaint in late May stated that a company believed to be Alamo “pretended to rent me a car just to take my money and stop answering the phone” .
“The bottom line is that there is always no car,” said Claire Rosenzweig, managing director of the Better Business Bureau for the New York metropolitan area.
Enterprise Holdings, which owns the Enterprise, Alamo and National brands, does not consider these cases “common” but has recently received reports of “some problems related to gift cards,” a company spokeswoman Lisa Martini said in an E -Mail. Enterprise informed customers about the gift card program in March.
Enterprise only accepts prepaid cards as payment at the end of a rental and doesn’t ask for payment information or card numbers over the phone, Ms. Martini said. Prepayment for a reservation can be an option, but is never mandatory.
“A website that asks for payment or asks to buy a gift card and provides the card number and PIN should sound the alarm,” she said.
Similarly, Hertz will “never ask you over the phone for prepaid card details as these cards are ONLY accepted upon return,” it says on its website.
Here are some questions and answers about car rental this summer:
How can I avoid rental car fraud?
A request for prepayment with a gift card or prepaid debit card should be an immediate red flag, Ms. Nofziger said. “No legitimate car rental company will ask you to prepay with a gift card.”
If you are suspicious of a promotion, go straight to the rental company’s official website and find the customer service number. “Call the company directly to make sure the deal is real,” said the Better Business Bureau.
Whenever you rent a car, always pay by credit card whenever possible, Ms. Wu said. Credit cards offer protection if you are a victim of fraud.
The Federal Trade Commission also provides general car rental tips on its website.
How do I get my dream car – cheaply – for my vacation?
If your summer travel plans include a rental car, it is best not to wait until the last minute. AutoSlash, a rental car discount website, recommends booking now for July 4th rentals.
Usually people reserve a car at the end of the trip planning. This year, however, travel experts are recommending consumers research prices and availability and book ground transportation first, or at least at the same time as purchasing a plane ticket.
You may need to be flexible about the type of car you rent, especially in popular travel destinations. Sedans can be more plentiful than minivans.
Consider renting in locations outside the airport, which are generally cheaper. You may need to take a cab or stop for a ride to the rental office, but the savings can be worth the hassle.
Various member organizations such as AAA and AARP offer rental car discounts as perks. There is usually a membership fee, but it can be worth it.
Participating in a car rental loyalty program can earn you a discount and can at least help you avoid waiting at the counter. Most of the basic versions are free.
Some companies even offer employees a corporate discount when booking travel for personal use, so it is worth checking with your employer.
And if all else fails, this may be the year to drive your own car to your vacation destination.
Why are rental cars scarce?
When the pandemic broke out last year, rental car companies saw an abrupt drop in bookings. In response, companies sold large portions of their fleets and ordered fewer new vehicles for 2021.
Now people feel safer getting on a plane and leaving the city. But the car rental companies cannot increase their inventories quickly, partly because a shortage of computer chips is delaying vehicle production. Automobile manufacturers are initially focusing on supplying retailers as they make more money from the cars sold to consumers.
That means fewer cars than usual to rent as demand is booming. “It’s kind of a double blow to the consumer,” says Neil Abrams, a seasoned travel advisor. The situation is expected to last into the fall, he said.