Consumer Watch

Wendy Knowler fights for your rights...

Wendy Knowler masthead
July 30 2012 at 10:07

Receiving complaints from unrelated consumers about the same issue, involving the same company, within days of each other, always grabs my attention, as it suggests that many others have been affected by the same thing.

In the same week, Europcar customers Alison Clarke and Taheera Hassim both wrote to Consumerwatch to question the car hire company’s fuel charging practices.

Hassim was charged an amount for fuel consistent with the distance she had driven in her hired car, despite the fact that she’d filled the tank at the Cape Town International Airport’s fuel station immediately before returning the car to Europcar’s airport depot.

And Clarke, who hired a Hyundai i10 from Europcar’s Rosebank branch for a week, said she was charged R200 for fuel despite only travelling 170km in that small, fuel-efficient car.

By the time Hassim wrote to me, she had been refunded the refuelling amount – R268 – by Europcar, but remained unhappy because the company had failed to explain why she’d been billed in the first place.

She had hired a Chevrolet Spark during her two-day visit to Cape Town.

“I simply do not understand how they could claim to have filled a tank that was full already,” she said.

“Where did R268 worth of fuel go?

“After numerous e-mails to Europcar, they stopped responding, so I drove to their head office at Bruma to get an explanation.

“A man called Craig said that he would investigate the matter and send me a written explanation.

“I have yet to receive that, but Europcar credited the fuel amount the day I spoke to Craig.”

When Clarke hired the Hyundai i10 from Rosebank, she “questioned upfront if they charged a surcharge for fuel and was told that they only charged the cost to refill the car based on the mileage driven”.

“I drove 170km and should have been billed for about 10 litres of fuel – based on the fuel consumption of the car – but I was billed a round amount of R200 and was told that this was what it took to fill the car.

“How widespread is the practice of inflating the refuel cost on hire cars?”

So I made contact with Europcar’s management, asking how the company calculated refuelling costs, given Hassim and Clarke’s experiences.

A day after sending that e-mail, Clarke got back to me to say that Europcar had sent her a “fuel adjustment” credit note in the amount of R100, with no explanation.

Responding on behalf of the company, Zavi Stein said that in most cases, Europcar charged for “actual fuel consumption” rather than on an estimation basis “which is a customary practice among most car rental companies in South Africa”.

“The cost to our customers is identical if the customer chooses to refuel the vehicle or if our customer chooses to let us refuel the vehicle,” said Stein.

“Because of this the vast majority of our customers choose not to refuel the vehicle themselves.”

But to get bills finalised quickly, Europcar had devised a system to estimate fuel consumption, based on the car’s claimed fuel consumption and distance driven, in cases where the customer had driven less than 300km and had not informed the company that they had refuelled the vehicle, Stein said.

But if a greater distance was travelled, Stein said, and the customer let it be known that they’d refuelled the car, the final bill would be delayed in order to bill for the “actual” fuel the car hire company pumped into the car on its return.

The success of that policy relied on Europcar’s employees correctly capturing the fact that the customer had refuelled the car, Stein said.

“Unfortunately, any process involving a dependency on people is always susceptible to human error.”

Due to customer “frustration” around this issue, Europcar had decided to “revert back to our former process, eliminating the estimations and human error”, she said.

“Our business is currently implementing the change to our business process over three months to allow for system changes and training of staff.”

As for the two cases in question, Stein said both errors were “as a result of human error”.

“We sincerely regret these errors and assure you that every effort will be extended to eliminate these from occurring.

“Both Ms Clarke and Dr Hassim have had the fuel charges refunded, and have also been contacted with an apology for the inconvenience.”

The human error in Hassim’s case appears to be that she was charged for refuelling the car despite the fact that she informed the staff that she’d refuelled the car herself.

As for Clarke’s case, using Europcar’s claimed estimation calculation, based on the fuel price, Hyundai’s claimed fuel consumption for that model – 5.8 litres for 100km – and the distance travelled, I came up with an amount of R115.

Human error saw her being charged R200.

“All rental car users need to check the fuel charge on their invoices,” Hassim said.

“When the customers are people on company business, they never see the invoice – it gets sent to an admin department for payment, so no checks are done.”

Stein said Europcar regretted the “service failures” in these two cases.

“And can only hope that the errors are seen as exactly that, and that we have a chance to prove ourselves as the car rental company of choice.

“Europcar is owned and managed by the Imperial Group.

“We would not risk tarnishing our reputation with activities that are counter-productive to our service and business ethics.

“As a matter of interest, our unrecoverable fuel costs were up in the last financial year by 27 percent – this is due to the increase in actual fuel rates, but also illustrates that we write off a substantial amount of fuel.”

Stein recommended that Europcar customers do not refuel their rental vehicles “as we provide this service as a courtesy at absolutely no additional cost to them”.

“Even if the fuel gauge reflects a full tank, we still dip the nozzle into the tank and top up to the brim – sometimes this could be merely a couple of litres,” Stein said.

Paul Pauwen of the Southern Africa Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association (Savrala) endorsed that advice – that consumers don’t bother to refuel the car shortly before returning it – saying that no matter how full the fuel gauge, the car rental company would always check.

“Yes, there will be errors with fuel charges from time to time, but it evens out – sometimes the consumer wins slightly, and sometimes they lose.

“A audited survey conducted by Savrala some years ago revealed that  rental companies all reported a loss on their fuel bill – it’s regarded as a cost to the business,” Pauwen said.

Still, it’s worth checking the fuel charge on your bill, to make sure you haven’t lost out due to an unfavourable estimation.

Baboon menace – yes, visitors need to be warned

If you rented a beach cottage for the weekend but pouring rain and howling wind mean you call it quits and head home a day early, would you ask for a refund? You could, but clearly it wouldn’t be a fair request.

But what if a troop of baboons surrounded your cottage, repeatedly jumping from roof to stoep, and trying the windows and doors, forcing you to flee early with your young children?

Riana Howa and her party think it was fair to ask for a refund for the night they missed after booking into a cottage in Pringle Bay, via the Pringle Bay Accommodation agency.

When they arrived, Howa says, the agent casually mentioned the presence of baboons, having said nothing of them a few days earlier when the two-night booking was made and paid for – R1 500 a night plus a R1 000 deposit.

“The baboons completely dominated the space around the house and were incredibly menacing, making us captive in the house, with two terrified small children,” Howa says.

“We left on the Saturday afternoon, having waited for the baboons to move off so we could get to our cars.”

The party then asked for a refund of R1 500 for the second night.

When the agent refused, pointing to the “minimum two-night stay” policy, Howa argued that they should have been warned about the baboons to make an informed choice, especially as the agency knew that young children would be in the party.

Consumer Watch took up the case. House owner Richard Doran said there was nothing wrong with the house itself. “All doors and windows are fitted with baboon locks and all locks are in a working condition. The tenants complained about the baboons – not the house or goods provided by me. I can’t take responsibility for a natural occurrence – it is, after all, a biosphere coastal town and it’s general knowledge that there are baboons in the whole Overberg area.”

Granted, property owners have no control over baboons, but in charging consumers to rent one of the homes, they, or their agents, are obliged – in terms of the Consumer Protection Act – to disclose “material facts”.

When I suggested this to the agent, Shirley Hansen, she said there were signs at the entrance to Pringle Bay, and in all the shops and restaurants.

“And on arrival, I warn all visitors about the baboons.”

But to be meaningful – and in keeping with consumer protection laws – those warnings need to happen before a person books and pays, not after.

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