Car rental scams overheat as summer travel picks up

If someone asks you to pay for a car rental over the phone with a gift card, it’s a scam. Dreamstime/TNS

As more people hit the road this summer, they need to steer clear of look-alike, imposter websites for car rental outfits that are popping up like pot holes.

You could fly into town, think you’ve got a rental car reserved, and end up going nowhere.

Ah, the joys of re-opening the economy in the COVID-19 vaccine era. Scammers can craft a whole new bunch of ways to steal money. Now that everybody is looking for a deal — and perhaps dealing with a shortage of rental cars in some markets — the con artists have figured out yet another way to get you to hand over money via a gift card.

The scam could prove to be a hot one this summer as more people are vaccinated against COVID-19 and may be more willing to travel this summer.

Did you rent a car or didn’t you?

One consumer thought she found a pretty good deal for a car rental, paid in full upfront with a prepaid gift card and figured she was all set. When she went to the car rental desk at that airport, though, she found out that they couldn’t find any reservation for her for a rental car.

No car, no way to get her money back.

Amy Nofziger, director of victim support for the AARP Fraud Watch Network, said the consumer originally called the AARP Helpline to complain that the car rental company lost her reservation.

Nofziger, who took that call, said she had to explain that the consumer was hit by scammers who had set up a fake online site to mirror a rental company.

“You were never talking to the real car rental place,” she told the woman.

Scammers know that consumers will be desperate for a better deal. And who isn’t anxious if they had a car accident or waited until the last minute to rent a car and can’t seem to find anything at a decent price? Setting up a fake website or phony customer service line can be an easy way for scammers to steal cash.

Clifton Coleman Jr., 69, said he tried to rent a car from a place near his home in San Diego when his 2005 Hyundai needed repairs after a car accident.

But that spot didn’t have any cars to rent. So he went online to search “cheap rental cars.”

He thought he had a great deal for seven days. He ended up losing $500 instead.

“They scammed me,” Coleman said.

At first he was told to put $200 on a Google Play card as a security deposit. He bought the card at a drug store. Then, he needed to put $100 on another card and another $200 on a third card.

He was supposed to pick up the car at the Alamo rental spot at the airport. But there was a two-hour delay and then another two hours went by and the car still wasn’t ready.

“He kept putting me off,” said Coleman, who retired after years of putting roofs on houses as a member of the United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers & Allied Workers.

“I said I want my money back,” he said. And that’s when the guy stopped taking his calls.

A ‘customer experience nightmare’

The imposters can pretend to be connected to a big brand name — like an Avis, Budget or Enterprise. Or some online sites appear to be third-party car rental brokers.

You might spot a few clues, like oddly worded advertisements or requests that you pay for that rental car in advance using a gift card.

Those who have been scammed say they think they have a reservation but never end up with a car.

The car rental industry is seeing this “customer experience nightmare” take place more frequently, according to a report in Auto Rental News.

Enterprise has posted this alert online: “Enterprise does not issue or accept gift cards to secure a rental. Only pre-paid gift cards with a Visa, Mastercard or Amex symbol will be accepted at the END of the rental for payment; NEVER required at reservation and payment information is NEVER requested over the phone.”

Some consumers lost money when the scammers enticed them by offering a limited-time-only deal if you pay in advance by putting $300 or $400 on a gift card.

One consumer from Staten Island reported a $400 loss to scammers pretending to be from Budget car rental.

“I ended up speaking with this fellow named ‘Aaron Shore’ and ‘booked’ a car for the week,” according to the report at BBB Scam Tracker.

By using an American Express card, the consumer supposedly would qualify for a better promotional deal.

Here’s the catch: The consumer was then told to get a prepaid American Express gift card. The representative asked for the card’s numbers, which of course make it easy for scammers to get their hands on the cash.

Another consumer in Georgia had a car break down and googled Budget Rental where an 888-number popped up. And again, the guy said American Express is running a promotion and recommended buying an Amex gift card to save money and qualify for the deal.

The punchline: No car and $300 out the window.

Scammers make you think they’re the real deal

Who would imagine that the customer service line you find online could be phony? Most of us wouldn’t even think that could be true.

But last July, I wrote about a Detroit woman who lost about $335 after working with what turned out to be a phony customer service line for CashApp.

Instead of calling you, scammers figured out a pretty clever way to get you to call them.

Sure, you might get an official sounding booking number. You might even have an agreed upon spot where a car can be delivered to you or picked up.

The scammers might even try to run a second scam, as they did with the Georgia consumer when no car showed up at an agreed time and location.

When the consumer called to complain someone else picked up the phone and said that the first guy was busy. The consumer called again and another guy picked up and said the first guy had been fired because he did something wrong.

The solution? Go to a store and call him from there so he could tell the consumer what kind of card to buy to confirm another booking.

“This was when I became suspicious and asked how they will hold my $600 without any car,” the consumer wrote. “And this is where he hung up the phone and it will not go through again.”

AARP plans to highlight this scam in the June issue of AARP Bulletin magazine after receiving complaints this spring from several travelers about fake customer service phone numbers online that look like they’re from a real car rental company.

Unfortunately, consumers must take extra steps to verify they’re talking to a legitimate company.

In many cases, it’s best to go to the website of a company and scroll that site to spot a phone number to call. Do not simply try to look up a customer service number online and grab the first number you see.

And if someone starts asking you to pay for a car rental over the phone with a gift card, hang up.

Susan Tompor is the personal finance columnist for the Detroit Free Press. She can be reached at stompor@freepress.com.

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