The attempted scam began innocently enough and could have happened to any traveler. I booked a car online using the popular website Kayak.com as I’ve done dozens, perhaps hundreds of times.. Except this time it was for Roatan, the popular island and diving spot just off the coast of Honduras.
I had plenty of economically feasible rental car options to choose from, but I chose Dollar Rental Carbecause they are a familiar company I’ve used many times over the years. I figured a brand name company like Dollar would help me avoid any potential headaches from renting in a developing country where I suspected they had few protections for consumers.
I was wrong.
HEY DOLLAR RENTAL CAR…. ARE YOU THERE?
We arrived to Roatan via a ferry from the mainland in semi rough seas that had about ½ the passengers hurling into bags. I was cool, so long as I kept my head down and my eyes off of the other retching passengers.
After claiming our luggage and asking several taxi drivers where Dollar Rental Car was located, we were met with another sea, but this time a sea of blank stares that then led to huddled conferences among the taxi drivers. Eventually receiving wildly conflicting information. No one, it seems, had even heard of Dollar Rental Car much less knew the location.
I proceeded to call the Roatan telephone # provided for Dollar by KAYAK from my reservation email but to no avail. The phone # was disconnected and no forwarding number was provided. Hmmmm… more than frustrating this would turn out to be RED FLAG #1. .
Finally a lone driver stepped forward and claimed to know where Dollar’s rental office was located. Ten minutes later our driver pulls into what is essentially a wooden shack with two small Dollar Rental Car signs haphazardly tacked up to the chain link fence and an even smaller, home printer printed sign tacked or taped to a small shack that apparently served as the Roatan’s Dollar Rental Car. “This is their office?” I thought.
The shack had a very temporary feel to it, especially in comparison to the other rental car companies surrounding it. Suddenly I regretted not booking with another, even an “off brand” rental car company.
The “office” interior wasn’t any more appealing, consisting of a couple of folding chairs, a desk and an old computer terminal. But hey, function over form right? Well, the function was a sticking point as well. The lone woman in the office was busy tapping her mobile device and didn’t even look up, much less acknowledge us when we walked into the shack, creating an awkward moment until eventually I broke the silence by asking “hello, do you work here?”. That led to an even more awkward grunt that I could not decipher as either “yes” or “no”, so I waited.
Finally some young, rotund (not shorthand for someone from Roatan) guy in shorts, an ill-fitting t-shirt and flip flops came into the office and somewhat took charge.
I asked if Dollar’s phone # changed or something and he replied that he thought we were coming in by plane not by boat. What this had to do with their telephone # not working I’m not sure, but I was so relieved that they actually had our reservation that I let it slide.
CARS RUN ON GAS?
The guy proceeded to pull out a boiler plate Dollar Rental Car Contract and filling it out by hand. He then asked me what our rate was. I was further confused. “Don’t you have a record?” I asked as I dig into my bag for my laptop to pull up the reservation.
Finally we both confirmed the rate of $37 U.S. per day and he asked me to sign on the dotted line. There was none of the usual insurance disclaimer or up sells. In fact, there was no mention of insurance at all.
This would turn out to be RED FLAG #2, but we were late already so I didn’t argue.
When his helper pulled the tiny economy car around, we piled our luggage and ourselves in like clowns in a clown car and we were ready to take off when I noted that the fuel was not only on empty, the gauge was sitting on the wrong side of the “E” symbol. Was it broken? We half hoped. Nope! There was just no gas in the car, well, there was enough to pull the car around in the lot form the back to the front, but was there enough to get us where we could gas up? That was the mystery.
We all nervously tittered and laughed about possibly running out of gas in Honduras, but I was seriously concerned as we had very real time constraints and something like running out of gas could seriously jeopardize our shoot. Our entire purpose for being in Roatan in the 1st place was to produce for our Honduras episode of Raw Travel (launching Oct. 5th in the U.S.).
The guys at Dollar assured me there was a gas station just a couple of miles down the road and that the car would make it there and we did. But not before some very nervous moments and not before filming the thing on our Go Pro camera just for laughs. Who rents a car to a customer on empty? No, not even on empty but past empty? Evidently Dollar Rental Car in Roatan that is who. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present RED FLAG #3.
WE HARDLY DROVE THE CAR
This was my 2nd time in Roatan and I sort of knew the lay of the land. We were heading to the West End of the island which is where most of the action we needed to document happens and was only a 20-25 minute drive away from the airport and the rental car agency.
I was torn over whether we actually needed a car, but in the end decided on one in case we needed to drive to other parts of the island. Since we were going to be in Roatan less than 24 hours I felt I wouldn’t take chances in case we needed a vehicle to chase a good story.
Turns out, one of the stories WOULD be the Dollar Rental Car experience and will hopefully serve as a warning for other unsuspecting travelers to Honduras or any other country that Dollar Rental Car operates that they do not take responsibility for the action of their agents in other countries.
As things turned out we didn’t need the car. We promptly drove to the west End, checked into our hotel and began setting up shoots for that afternoon and the next morning. The West End is easily covered on foot so the car remained parked until it was time to return it and catch the early afternoon ferry back to the mainland. What little we drove the car was 100% without incident.
The next day, right on schedule we returned the little car to the Dollar Rental car shack this time with an 1/8 tank of gas so at least the next customer wouldn’t be sweating bullets wondering if they will be stranded in Roatan after renting from Dollar (unless of course the staffers go joy riding after hours).
Mr. T-shirt and flip-flops, and his hearty assistant from the day before inspected the car and gave it a “good to go” thumbs up. The assistant then drove us a few miles back to the boat ferry. No issues and again no problems with the car whatsoever just some small talk about Roatan, our trip, living in the U.S., etc.
Mr. Assistant made it clear we were early for our ferry and had plenty of time to eat at the ferry station ,which we proceeded to do immediately after waving goodbye and thought we’d seen the last of the Roatan Dollar Rental Car folks.
We checked in for the ferry, breezed through security and had some lunch. While we were waiting around for our departure time is when the Dollar Rental Car scam kicked into high gear.
IT’S “SCAMMER” TIME
I emerged from the restroom when one of my travel mates alerted me that some guys from Dollar Rental Car were in the lobby of the ferry terminal and wished to see me. I thought maybe I had left something in the car or something so I walked outside to the lobby where 2 guys I’d never seen before, wearing official looking red polo shirts with Dollar Rental Car logos, were waiting for me and glaring my direction severely. The younger of the two spoke English and told me in his most grown up voice that there was a problem with the car.
I sighed. Here it comes. After all this time, all these red flags, here is the very scam I’d been hoping to avoid. I tried to remain calm. “What problem?! I barely drove it” I replied.
The young guy then proceeded to tell me that somehow I had messed up the transmission or something or another. I laughed at the audacity of the claim. He pulled out his mobile phone, which already had a man on the other line claiming to be the “manager” and asked me to come back to the office. The ferry would be leaving soon so that was not possible I said.
This official sounding gentleman, who spoke perfect English, then went straight into full scam mode accusing me of screwing up the transmission and “ruining the car” and said I was going to “have to pay something”.
I relayed to him that I had barely driven it and said that if there had been a problem with the car why didn’t Mr. Assistant who drove us to the ferry say something then? Wouldn’t he have noticed something? Maybe he messed up the car on the drive back to the office form the ferry or maybe, just maybe, there was nothing wrong with the car in the first place. Were they just some guys trying to extort a little money from tourists?
He replied that Mr. Assistant had alerted them that there HAD been a problem with the car when he dropped us at the ferry and when he returned it to the shack it was damaged and I owed money to fix the car.
I was on the verge of hanging up when he asked me if I’d ever driven a stick (manual transmission) before.
I informed Mr. Official Sounding Voice (AKA the manager) that I’d driven a stick many times, including learning how to drive as a preteen on a stick on the farm I grew up on many years ago.
After more back and forth and my voice beginning to raise a bit, a small crowd was now gathering as more travelers arrived to catch the ferry. I finally wearied of this brazen scam and told Mr. Official Sounding Voice the truth. I told him that we were in Roatan filming a travel show and that we had videotaped the pickup of the car and would now begin filming this incident and since the whole thing is taped documentary style it would be no trouble at all to put the whole thing on national TV for the world to see in a cute little segment entitled “Dollar Rental Car Tries to Scam Us”.
I gave him the name and website (www.RawTravel.tv) of the show and told him to look it up. He paused, and then asked to speak to his “mechanic”, the other employee. After a brief conversation in Spanish the mobile was returned back to me.
Mr. Official Sounding said “never mind” and that even though I had ruined the car he was going to forget about it.
That is when I really got mad. Really? You are going to forget all about me ruining a car now?
NOT THE OLD “I PRODUCE A TRAVEL SHOW” ROUTINE?
All it took for him to give up this charade was for me to simply offer up some potentially damaging publicity? If I had really damaged the car would he have rolled over so easily?
What if I hadn’t been a producer for a travel show and had been just on vacation as I was in 2010 when I first visited Roatan? What of the people who, like me, use Kayak and rent from Dollar Rental Car because of the brand recognition and they think this will protect them from scam artists like these clowns who prey on unsuspecting tourists?
How many people are afraid of any issues like this in another country and simply pay these guys money to go away and forget the whole thing?
I told him too late. This WAS going on TV and nothing he can say or do will stop it. I hung up the phone, pointed to the two guys and said something like “the next time you try to scam somebody you better, you better…” and just like in a bad sitcom show I could not find the words to finish my sentence in English or Spanish. So I stormed off, but I think they got the point.
To be honest I’m not sure what I said exactly, but I wish I had it to do over again. I would have played along longer with the scam, gathered my Go Pro camera and gotten the names, images on tape, etc. before unloading the travel show truth on them.
But I had a ferry to catch and let’s face it, in the heat of the moment, you don’t always think rationally and that is exactly what the scam artists are hoping.
Dollar is supposed to be a legitimate business operating in a very popular tourism destination as a service to their customers worldwide. Yet, when I contacted them about this issue thinking I was doing them a favor reporting on some rogue agents using their good name in order to scam unsuspecting travelers, they took days to get back to me. Then they absolved themselves of any responsibility stating they sent the Roatan managements an email.
They sent them an email? The so-called and alleged managers are the very ones who tried to commit the scam in the 1st place and all Dollar does is send an email? What did the email say? “Bad agents… bad!” or perhaps “better luck next time guys”.
You can see Dollar Rental Car’s response to my emails below as well as my follow up email to them to which they have thus far never responded (as of 8/13/13).
I’ve always had positive dealings with Dollar in the U.S., which is why I’m shocked and disappointed that Dollar would ignore this problem, and by doing so essentially be complicit in potential alleged fraud that could be committed against their own customers.
If Dollar runs their business like a solid citizen in the U.S., why allow potential scam artists apparent free rein and risk customer good will just because the location is abroad? Something doesn’t smell right.
I wonder if they might change their mind come next spring when the Honduras episode hits the airwaves and this smelly business is out in the open for all to see? I guess we’ll find out won’t we.
EMAIL FROM DOLLAR RENT A CAR JULY 27th, 2013
Hi Robert, Thank you for contacting us. I have forwarded your message to the location’s management to review and address. I’m sorry but we do not comment on behalf of our franchisees, who are independently-owned and operated businesses. Anna B. / Manager, Corporate Communications
MY RESPONSE TO DOLLAR RENTAL CAR ON JULY 28th
Thank you for finally replying to my concerns. However, I must admit I’m pretty taken aback by your response. I want to make sure I understand it accurately. Are you saying it is acceptable for your independently owned franchisees to attempt fraud while operating under Dollar’s franchise agreements?
Are there any steps made by Dollar to protect consumers in locations like Honduras where the consumers are led to believe they are dealing with a reputable U.S. company when in fact, they are dealing with independent operators with which, assuming your statement is accurate, you have little to no control, even in cases of potential criminal activity?
Why would Dollar give the rights to your name, logo and branding if you cannot insure consumers are protected against potentially criminal behavior?
Are you comfortable with your statement going public in our Honduras episode of Raw Travel? (The episode is currently scheduled to air in March 2014).
We crossed the border from Guatemala to Honduras at the small town of Copan Ruins and even before we arrived into town I began to notice the old timers with cowboy hats & boots. This was cowboy country. But people don’t come here to look at cowboys. They come here for the Mayan ruins that the town derives its name from, the incredible Copan Ruins.
Unlike sites in Mexico, we received nothing but cooperation and help from the local tourism office located at the site of the ruins. They gave us written permission to film and hooked us up with an excellent, English speaking guide for our tour. The ruins are huge (still only about 20% uncovered) and feature the most complete and amazing hieroglyphics found in the Americas.
The town itself is lovely, and except for the security guards armed with sawed off shotguns at every bank, ATM or government building, has a mostly tranquil air to it. Locals and tourists mix seamlessly and you can easily get around the cobblestone streets by catching a cheap ride on one of the countless tri-moto taxis buzzing around.
San Pedro Sula
From there we headed to San Pedro Sula where we met up with 2 local friends, Miriam and Etel, who graciously guided us around town. We visited the local market where we had Baleadas, which many Hondurans have for breakfast. Except for waaay too much butter on mine (I don’t generally eat raw butter) it was delicious.
Later we visited a really cool, company named Techos Verde (Green Roofs), an award winning and forward thinking company spearheading the “green” architecture movement in Central America. They combine the practical with the environmental. This isn’t pie in the sky, utopian thinking, this is real stuff happening now. It makes so much sense (economically and environmentally) that I can’t foresee that buildings and homes will be built via any other way within 20 years. What they are able to make from old metal shipping containers is absolutely amazing and could be a game changer for broad based, energy efficient and economical housing in Latin America.
The highlight of SPS was perhaps the moment Etel’s car overheated on a busy freeway creating some very tense minutes. I ended up flagging down and warning high speed drivers to please slow down as there was no shoulder for us to completely get off the road safely. The SPS police passed by a couple of times and whistled and laughed at us. Lovely… very civic minded fellas those guys.
Finally a small truckload of 4 Honduran National Military Soldiers rolled up and offered to tow us to a gas station in town with a chain they happened to have in the bed of their 4WD truck. We spent the next ½ hour or so being towed at a slow speed by this truckload of good Samaritan Honduran soldiers who were nice, polite and eager to be of service. My hats off and another round of thanks to these good guys who put the local SPS Police to shame.
From San Pedro Sula it was off to the coastal town of Telaon the way to La Ceiba.Tela is a small beach town where Honduran’s have been vacationing for years. It’s a perfect day trip from either San Pedro Sula or La Ceiba. The beaches aren’t particularly lovely and you have a feeling the town is a little past its heyday. But the people are very nice and we serendipitously ran into one of the local musicians who made his living playing local Honduran music on the beach. He treated us to his original rendition of the appropriate song “Tela”.
Rightly so, Tela has a reputation for being dangerous these days. While I didn’t experience it personally (I ran on the desolate beach and city streets at night and nary a problem), one of the old timers we ran into on the straight put it this way, “This used to be paradise, but now it is a hell”. The local director of tourism for Tela, Ferdinand, offered to us that some banks and the government had pledged some pretty big bucks to fix Tela up and restore it to its former glory, so time will tell if maybe paradise can come yet again.
La Ceiba & Sambo Creek
Most people visit La Ceibaeither to visit one of the nearby Garifuna communities or more likely to catch a ferry to the diving hotspot island of Roatan. We would do both.
First it was off to Sambo Creek, a beautiful Garifuna fishing village just a few kilometers outside of La Ceiba. We headed straight to the beautiful, natural beach to capture some b-roll & photos as we waited for the President (essentially the mayor) of the village to show up. We were immediately greeted by 4 or 5 of the happiest (and completely naked) little kids I’ve ever seen. They had been happily bathing in the warm sea water. The boys, too young to care about their complete nakedness, came bouncing up to us shouting “hola” and extending their hands for handshakes like somber young men to welcome us and then it was all smiles as they began breaking into singing and dancing.
Their enthusiasm was contagious and for a moment I was jealous of their freedom (but not enough to shed my clothes).
We spent the next few minutes entertaining each other. We’d teach them a few basic words in English and video tape them and then playing back their images to their utter delight.
The cool ocean breeze, the swaying palm trees and these cute, innocent and completely happy kids put me in a great almost euphoric mood. I was suddenly very happy to be doing what I was doing and finally stopped worrying about producing the show and started enjoying the moment. Kids are truly a tonic and I am amazed at the happiness of the poorest of them if they are simply provided the basics of food, health and love. However, I then noticed a couple of f them had distended bellies, which can be a sign of a lack of protein and I was brought back down to the harsh reality these kids are dealing with.
Sambo Creek has television and access to internet, but it is a bit off the beaten path and many people live pretty basic. A small but burgeoning travel & tourism industry has helped provide some much needed income to some of the villagers.
We finally hooked up with Omar, the President of the village, who was a very likable and intelligent man who looked to be in his 30s. Omar had spent some time in the U.S. and had returned home to give back to his community. Like any leader of a small town, he knew everyone and everyone knew him.
After a brief tour of Sambo Creek where he filled us in on the villages history, he then guided us to a family on the outskirts of town that did not have access to the potable drinking water. The rest of the town has been getting clean drinking water for the last 5 or so years thanks to an NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) from Spain who helped the town install a water tower and filtration system.
I had been toting around a couple of water filtration devices form Sawyer Products,an excellent water filtration, insect repellent and sunscreen company, that has helped thousands of families all over the world get access to clean, drinkable water thanks to their cutting edge water filtration technology.
All we needed was a bucket, and to follow the filtration installation instructions Sawyerprovides via video, and within 20 minutes or so we were able to help this family get access to drinkable water like most of the rest of their town. Installation was a success and the crew and I all breathed a big sigh of relief.
We all have our different talents, but putting things together is not one of them. Luckily the video instructions provided by Sawyer are pretty much dummy proof and if you can put together a bookshelf from Ikea then you can put together this water filtration system, which is also very affordable by U.S. standards.
I invite other travelers to think about carrying a water filtration kit when they travel, either for personal use (to cut down on plastic bottle consumption) and/or as a gift to a family that may live in an area without potable water.
Then it was off by ferry to the island of Roatan. Roatan is gorgeous and has some of the best and most economical scuba diving in the Americas, which is why it’s jam-packed full of travelers. Most of them English speakers.
We spent almost all our time on the West End which is where most of the action occurs. I’m not a diver but we did talk to plenty, including the famous dive shop Coconut Tree Divers. They filled us in on the growth of Roatan,which was evident in the 3 or so years since I’d last visited.
I was able to finally do something I’d been longing to do for some time, stand up paddle-board, which surprisingly and for a change, is actually easier than it looks. Steve at Steve’s Paddle Shackwas right when he guaranteed I’d be upright and paddling within 10 minutes. I think I was upright within 3 minutes and the entire time I didn’t even get wet! It was a great work out and was so tranquil out on the water. I’m afraid I’m hooked for life.
Another way to enjoy Roatan’s West End without getting wet is to hook up with Captain Karl Stanley at Stanley Submarine. I really enjoyed chatting with Karl and getting to know his story. Karl is an ex-pat from New Jersey but has been on the island for a while. He is a genius, semi-celebrity and pioneer in submarine building, having built his first one when he was just a teen.
This particular submarine was completely hand built by Karl and regularly takes tourists onboard and the occasional professional marine biologists or (as was the case while we were there) documentary film crew, which sadly for us, meant we couldn’t go down. I’m not sure that I would have wanted to, because while Karl obviously knows his stuff and has been on hundreds of successful dives, he has had a few hairy moments during his submarine career which he regaled us with.
When you consider what can happen (your eyes pop out and your head basically explodes from the pressure) if the submarine’s integrity were to go… it is a sobering thought. Yet every day tourists from all over the world pay the $400-$500 to go down and have one of the most unique experiences in the world. Judging from the footage & photos Karl shared with us I can understand why.
As much as I fully enjoyed paddle-boarding, chatting with Captain Karl and the coolest dive shop on the planet at Coconut Tree Divers, my favorite moment while visiting Roatan was definitely stumbling upon the Rusty Fish – founded and run by Adam Hunt a U.K. ex-pat, artist, designer and all around good guy.
Before Adam founded Rusty Fish the souvenirs in Roatan were all manufactured elsewhere. Adam wanted to create jobs for local families in Roatan by simply recycling everyday items picked from the local garbage dump to create locally made souvenirs. The Rusty Fish’s slogan is “Recycled With Love” and after visiting both the workshop and the dump where Adam is well known and received enthusiastically, I 100% believe it. The guy has a heart a mile wide and who wouldn’t be touched by the way the garbage pickers reacted when he showed up.
The stench at the dump was overwhelming, yet all day, every day, dozens of poor Hondurans with no other source of income risks their health to find things of value that the rest of the island has thrown away or discarded. In addition to the poor souls scraping a living by scouring the dump, Rusty Fish’s workshop employs almost a dozen other families and they also sell artwork made by other Honduran artisans.
Dive if you like, but if you visit Roatan, you absolutely must pass by the Rusty Fish and grab an authentic souvenir “recycled with love” and authentically made in Roatan (not China, Taiwan or the U.S.) where your money will go directly to support local artisans who depend on the shop for a living.
After all this positive energy, I was saddened that when we returned our rental car to the Dollar Rental Car office we were almost the victims of an attempted scam. Had we not been producing a travel show, chances are we would have had to pay a fee to “fix” things. After this attempted