Rental-car 'fuel ripoff' row spreads

By Denis Droppa Time of article published Feb 27, 2015

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Johannesburg - Our recent article about a customer who felt he’d been unfairly charged for petrol by a car-rental company has stirred up something of a hornet’s nest and several other readers have come forward with similar complaints.

We wrote that Dave Pullen had in December hired a Volkswagen Polo Vivo 1.4 from First Car Rental at OR Tambo airport and was shocked at the petrol bill he had to pay after giving the car back with what he believed was a full tank of fuel.

Pullen suspected skulduggery because he’d filled the car up to the “first click” at an airport petrol station just before returning it, and was dismayed when First Car Rental subsequently charged him R167 for an additional 13 litres for the Polo to be topped up.

The distance between First Car Rental’s office at OR Tambo and its fuel depot is just 5km, which couldn’t account for 13 litres of fuel being used. He suspected that either he was being charged for fuel that wasn’t put into the car, or that operators at the depot were claiming to be filling rental cars but stealing the fuel for themselves.

When we put these claims to First Car Rental they denied anything underhanded had taken place, explaining that it’s their policy to fill all their vehicles to the brim, and that when Pullen fuelled it the Vivo may have had an air lock that prevented it from being filled right to the top.

We felt Pullen’s complaint had merit as this publication’s experience of road-testing many different cars has shown a 13-litre sized air lock to be unlikely, and the difference between filling a car to “first click” or to the brim is seldom more than a couple of litres. Also, based on the kilometres driven and the amount of fuel it ostensibly used, the Vivo 1.4 recorded a 12 litres per 100km consumption reading - much higher than average for such a small-engined vehicle.

The article triggered a raft of similar complaints from our readers, indicating this wasn’t an isolated incident and that it’s not uncommon for car-rental companies to seemingly overcharge customers for fuel.

INDUSTRY-WIDE PHENOMENON

It seems to be an industry-wide phenomenon and several different car-rental companies – including First, Tempest, Avis, Europcar and Thrifty – were named. In some cases the fuel money was refunded after the customer queried an erroneous bill.

In others, as with the Dave Pullen incident above, the company stood its ground and refused a refund. First Car Rental also threatened possible legal action against our newspaper for publishing the article.

As this seems to be a more widespread issue we sought comment from the Southern African Vehicle Renting & Leasing Association, an umbrella body for most of the biggest players in the car-rental industry.

SAVRALA president Marc Corcoran admits that fraud does sometimes take place when rental vehicles are moved from the rental location to a garage or depot.

“While an isolated problem over the years, after investigating an increase in fuel queries, members have reported that fuel was stolen out of the vehicle during the transfer process which explained the fuel errors,” he says. “As expected the necessary disciplinary and criminal procedures were applied.”

He says human error also plays a role in contributing to fuel errors, for example the incorrect recording of the rental vehicle’s registration details, closing kilometres and refuelled values.

Corcoran advises car-rental customers to ensure that the kilometres recorded on the documentation received when collecting the rental vehicle actually matches the odometer reading at the start of the rental period.

“Similarly, when returning the rental vehicle, make a note of the vehicle’s increased kilometres. The difference between the two readings, noting any vehicle collection conditions, will confirm the distance travelled and form the basis for review of any future fuel query.

“Should you have refuelled the vehicle during the rental period retain your fuel slips and note the vehicles kilometre readings at each refuelling point. This will also assist should there be any fuel queries,” Corcoran concludes.

Customers who have unresolved issues with SAVRALA members can log a query with the association on its website under the Contact Us tab. – Star Motoring

Follow me on Twitter @DenisDroppa

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