By Bob Howard
BBC Radio 4's Money Box
Visa's Brian Geary says there are guidelines for car hire companies.
Hire car customers should take precautions to avoid disputes over damage when vehicles are returned, according to consumer watchdogs.
People often fail to have their car checked because the firm's office is closed or they are rushing for flights.
But this means customers are then liable for any damage which occurs before vehicle inspection.
Consumers are advised to take photographs as evidence the car was left undamaged.
David Scott from London was unable to have his vehicle checked when he left it at Ancona airport in Italy after a holiday in May. He believed he left it in good condition but found when he looked at his bank statement that he had been billed for £336 for damage to the windscreen.
He says he was not notified of the damage or that he was being billed for it by the car hire company, Auto Europa.
He told Radio 4's Money Box programme:
"I think the cards are stacked against you with car hire companies. There is so little obvious proof required from the car hire company that damage to a vehicle actually occurred."
Money Box was contacted by dozens of car hire customers with a wide range of complaints against most of the major hire car companies.
One listener said she had a similar experience dealing with Auto Europa.
Complaints against other companies included being billed for upgrades they had not asked for, extra insurance they had not wanted, damage caused by another driver and incorrect billing over fuel.
Auto Europa insisted it always notifies customers in advance if it is going to bill them for damage. Vittoria Scalici, the company's customer service manager, says they have a set procedure for doing so:
"Our accident department immediately sends clients a registered letter informing them about the damage with photos and damage report."
Eventually Auto Europa agreed to refund David and other Money Box listeners reported some success in challenging charges and getting their money back. Which? Holiday says it received many similar complaints when it investigated car hire companies earlier this year.
Visa told Money Box it has specific guidelines for hire car companies which say customers must be notified in advance about charges for damage. However these guidelines are not published, and Visa relies on whichever institutions the car hire firms bank with to advise them.
Avis and Budget said they try and notify customers before billing them. Hertz and Europcar/National said they sent out their letters at the same time as debiting the hirer's account. Europcar/National said it believed that the customer's signature and agreement to†the rental agreement was sufficient authorisation for†any charges relating to their rental.
Visa says customers who have a dispute should first contact their bank. If necessary, the bank can then refer the matter on to Visa. Mastercard says it can also help with these sorts of disputes.
There are other precautions customers can take. Paying with a credit card gives more time to pay, and could give greater protection under the consumer credit act.
Amanda Diamond from the consumer magazine Which? Holiday says customers can also help themselves by taking precautions at the car hire centre:
"Try and drop the car off while there is someone at the office. If you can't do that, then take lots of photographs so that you have proof there's been no damage to the car."
Customers can also refer disputes with hire car companies across Europe to the new UK European Consumer Centre, run by Trading Standards. It also recommends customers gather as much evidence as they can such as photographing their vehicle in case of any disputes over damage.
BBC Radio 4's Money Box was broadcast on Saturday,
21 June 2008 at 1204 BST.