Beware of bogus rental car schemes

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The surge in leisure travel as pandemic restrictions lift and a tight supply of rental cars have brought out the criminals this summer, consumer watchdogs say.

The Federal Trade Commission as well as consumer groups and rental companies are warning travelers about schemes that lure them into booking phony reservations through fake customer service numbers and websites.

The problem is that rental car companies have been whipsawed in the pandemic, dealing first with a sudden and extended drop in demand and now with an equally sudden increase in bookings. The result has been higher prices and more challenges in reserving cars during peak times in popular tourist areas.

Recent complaints to the AARP and the Better Business Bureau describe similar schemes. In some cases, consumers did not realize they had been duped until they showed up at the rental counter to learn there was no record of their reservation.

The sequence may start when a shopper searches online for a general term like “cheap rental cars,” said Amy Nofziger, director of victim support for the AARP Fraud Watch Network. They call the number that shows up in the search, thinking it belongs to a legitimate rental company, but it turns out to be a fake.

The fake rental agency typically will insist that the caller reserve by paying with a gift card or prepaid debit card.

Once the caller buys a card and relays its PIN to the bogus agency, the criminal can quickly convert the card to cash, and the consumer is left without the money or a car.

It may be hard to understand why someone would fall for such a trick, but criminals are skilled at playing on people’s emotions, Nofziger said.

Complaints on the Better Business Bureau’s website indicate the scams involve both no-name companies and impersonators posing as representatives of brand-name outlets. Reported losses range from $200 to $800.

One of the complaints, from early June, involved a call to a company purporting to be Budget. The consumer paid $280 on a prepaid Visa card. When he could not reach the number again he found and called the actual Budget number and was told that no reservation had been booked.

“The bottom line is that, always, the car doesn’t exist,” said Claire Rosenzweig, chief executive of the BBB serving metropolitan New York.

Enterprise Holdings, which includes the Enterprise, Alamo and National brands, does not consider these cases to be “prevalent” but has had recent reports of “some gift card-related issues,” said a spokeswoman for the company.

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