Ont. car rental agency under fire for extra fees

A Vancouver man is speaking out about his experience with a Toronto car rental company after he was charged hundreds of dollars in fees he said he didn't expect to pay.

B.C. customer charged $300 more than he was quoted online

Dave Carman was shocked at his final bill for an Advantage rental car. ((CBC))

A Vancouver man is speaking out about his experience with a Toronto car rental company after he was charged hundreds of dollars in fees he said he didn't expect to pay. 

"I was flabbergasted, to put it mildly," said David Carman. "I thought this is ridiculous. This can't happen. They can't fleece me for this much money."

Carman's experience with Advantage Car and Truck Rental began in September, when he went online to book a rental car for a trip to Toronto in early October. Advantage offered the best rate, he said, for a 13-day rental from Toronto's Pearson Airport. 

"The first thing that jumped out to me — was the grand total," Carman said.

His online booking form shows a grand total, including taxes and fees, of $470.77. When he went to pick up the car, Carman said he showed the attendant the printout, to confirm what his final bill would be.

"I said 'Look, here's the online booking.' And I said 'Is this right?' And he said, 'The rates are correct sir,'" Carman said.

Carman said he was shocked when he returned the car 13 days later. Carman said he was handed a folded invoice, already charged to his credit card, for an amount more than $300 above the grand total he was quoted online.

"I drop the car off. The fellow prints up the receipt, folds it up — very compactly I might add," said Carman. "I spend 30 seconds unravelling the thing and I find the actual grand total, once receiving the bill, is $785.85."

'They give you a lowball quote'

"I think that's their modus operandi," he said. "They give you a lowball quote online, you see it, you're attracted to it. You book. You get in there. They give you a rental agreement with some extra fees and hope people won't notice them."

Carman was charged an extra $9.95 per day, because his wife had been added as an extra driver. At the time he booked, that charge was not listed anywhere on Advantage's website. 

Advantage's booking website lists fees, taxes and a "Grand Total." ((CBC))

CBC News found other rental car agencies, such as Thrifty and Hertz, also charge for a spouse to be an additional driver. Avis and Budget do not.

Carman was also hit with a daily charge of $3.99, listed as "GC-OC" on his final bill. Advantage said that is an administration fee they charge when customers decline insurance, choosing instead to use their gold card for coverage.

When he saw that charge on his final bill, Carman thought it looked like a tax. "First of all you're thinking GC is … the government of Canada," he said.

"Why I'd be charged for declining insurance is beyond me."

Although he only had the car for 13 days, Carman was also charged for a full two-week rental, instead of one week and six days, which increased his bill by another $60.

"They [Advantage] just kept on putting it back on me. 'This is your fault,' they said, 'Because you agreed to all of that up front.'"

Advantage is a Canadian-owned company, with several locations in Ontario. President Bruce Taylor declined a request for an interview but sent CBC News the paperwork initialled by Carman at the time he picked up the car.

Declined-insurance fee rare

The daily charges for an extra driver and insurance administration are listed on the second page of the rental agreement Carman signed.

In an email, Taylor explained the extra fee for declining insurance.

"This exposes Advantage to serious administration costs," Taylor wrote. "For this service and the cost of writing for payment, Advantage charges this administration surcharge —  which is stated in our web policies and which is disclosed on the contract."

CBC News surveyed several major car rental companies and did not find any others that said they charge a fee when the customer declines insurance.

Carman insists all the charges should have been clearly listed as options on the website and then included in his grand total right up front.

"These aren't incidental charges — these are known fees," said Carman. "Why was this not on the website so I could get an accurate picture of what I would be paying?"

As a result of Carman's complaint, Advantage has now updated its website to include the extra driver charge in its section on rental policies.

Other similar complaints

There have been other customer complaints about Advantage, most about overcharging. Five of the company's Ontario locations have an "F" rating with the Better Business Bureau. Companies receive an F rating for failing to respond to customer complaints.

Advantage Car and Truck Rental is a Canadian company with several Ontario locations. ((CBC))

Eighteen complaints about Advantage have been filed with the bureau in the last three years. Most complainants claimed they were overcharged, and the bureau said most of the complaints are unresolved.

Taylor told CBC News he does not respond to Better Business Bureau complaints. He also confirmed the following comments posted on consumer websites are from his customers:

"[The attendant] had folded the receipt and handed it back to me and walked away," wrote an Advantage customer on my3cents.com this fall.

"I looked at the charge and it was $327 for a four-day rental!! WTF!! When I booked it was only supposed to be $159."

"I was bombarded with aggressive questions as to why I was returning [the car]," another customer wrote in 2007 on complaintsboard.com. "And now I'll be charged a $100 early drop-off fee."

"My five-day, $161 US rental turned out be … $239.00 US" said another in 2006 on virtualtourist.com. "When we asked what the extra charge was — there was a $8.95 for mandatory liability (OK that was in the fine print). So now I'm at $201 US. What is the other $38 for?"

Jacqueline Boone, an Advantage customer from the U.K., successfully sued the company in Ontario small claims court last year after she was charged $5,558 for an accident she thought she had purchased insurance for.

Advantage was ordered to pay the bill instead, plus court costs. The company appealed the decision and lost.

Consumer advocate wants tougher laws

Michael Janigan of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, a non-profit consumer law firm in Ottawa, wrote a report recently about what he calls hidden charges in the marketplace.

He said online bookings are where rental car customers often get tripped up.

"We think it's getting worse," said Janigan. "Frankly, it's a way where you can advertise a lower fee and get a higher amount."

"Companies aren't competing with each other on the basis of transparent pricing. They are effectively advertising one price and charging another."

Janigan's group is pushing the federal and provincial governments to pass tougher laws to protect the consumer from extra fees.

Michael Janigan of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre wants government action on hidden fees for rental cars. ((CBC))

He suggested Carman's case should be reviewed by the Competition Bureau, which governs potential misleading advertising claims.

"There are some laws that are in place that may be of assistance in this case, but we think they should be strengthened. Certainly the whole marketplace has to be cleaned up to get rid of these kinds of charges," he said.

Competition Bureau spokesperson Greg Scott said it encourages consumers to file complaints if they feel they have been misled.

"The Bureau takes all allegations of false or misleading advertising very seriously," Scott wrote in an email. "We also encourage all consumers to be smart shoppers, by asking questions and taking precautions when agreeing to purchase any goods or services."

Carman filed his complaint with the Ontario Consumer Protection Branch, the Better Business Bureau and the Toronto police, as well as Advantage.

"I sent them a letter regarding all of this and I never heard from them," said Carman.

Customer promised a refund

Taylor wrote to CBC News that the company is now addressing the complaint and will be issuing Carman a partial refund for the extra-day rental charge.

"This was a computer-generated amount which was incorrect and should have been corrected at the time of contract closing by the staff," Taylor wrote.

"A correcting credit is, therefore, being issued to Mr. Carman with a separate covering letter."

Carman said this is the first indication he's had of any resolution from Advantage.

"I argued until I was blue in the tooth with them and they just kept saying it was my fault."