THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- Fine print: The rental car insurance thicket

The next time Pete Marshall rents a car, I predict he'll either study his receipt with laser-beam intensity or make sure he has only one bank card in his wallet. That's because his failure to do either, on a recent trip to St. Louis, cost him $500.
Marshall rented an Avis car at the airport, and when the clerk asked how he wanted to pay, Marshall handed her his Visa debit card.

"She asked if I wanted to use their insurance," he states, "at which point I realized that I should have given her my Visa platinum credit card." That's because the credit card– unlike the debit card– includes zero-deductible insurance on rental cars.

Marshall claims that he asked the Avis employee not to use the debit card and handed her the credit card instead. "She took the second card," he says, and, assuming that was the card he was renting the car under, he signed the rental form.

You guessed it: Marshall had an accident (which he admits was his fault). Things got even worse, however, when he got his bank statement and realized that the car had been rented with the debit– not the credit– card. The accident was covered under Marshall's regular auto insurance, but he had to pay a $500 deductible.

Marshall said he made "numerous" phone calls to Avis, during which he was told there was nothing the company could do, since he had signed the rental agreement with the debit card number on it.

"I said, 'Well, what's Avis's reputation worth? Don't expect me to ever rent from Avis again.'"

In the end, Avis offered coupons worth $85, which was the rental fee he'd paid. Since Marshall rarely rents a car, he says he asked (1) whether he could give them away, and (2) whether there would be an expiration date. He claims the answers were yes, he could give them away, and no, there would be no expiration date.

But when the coupons, three for $25 and one for $10, arrived, he says, the fine print stated that no more than three could be used at once, which meant they'd have to be spread across two rentals. Worse, they'd have to be used by June 30.

I contacted Susan McGowan, director of public relations at Avis, who confirmed the company's position. Regardless of how the wrong credit card ended up on Marshall's rental contract, McGowan reiterated, it was his responsibility to check the card number before signing.

As for the coupons' fine print, however, McGowan said, "We will replace the coupons with something equivalent and a longer shelf life."

I don't rent cars very often, either, and when I have I've waived the insurance. Now, however, I'm not so sure that's the best way to go. BreezeNet Marketing has a website ( that explains the customer's options– i.e., rental-company insurance vs. credit-card insurance vs. regular auto insurance– and I plan to bone up before getting behind the wheel of another rented car.

Nigerian scammers find a mark

Earlier this year, I wrote about a new wrinkle in the notorious Nigerian "419" scam ["Check the check," January 26], in which con artists posing as potential tenants for an apartment I'd advertised sent bogus checks. The idea was that I'd be stupid enough to deposit the checks/money orders (which looked 100 percent authentic) and then wire them the extra $2,000 or so overpayment that had "accidentally" been included.

In the May 15 New Yorker, Mitchell Zuckoff chronicles the mind-boggling downfall of a Massachusetts psychologist who believed a crafty Nigerian crew when they emailed him for help. To read the saga online, go to and search "419."

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at 100 Second Street NW, Charlottesville 22902.