THE DOLLAR RENT-A-SCAM
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
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).