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Caveat: Time to put the brakes on dodgy car hire operators

Each summer the consumer pages of newspapers fill with tales of unscrupulous practices by some car hire operators

Is there another major consumer-facing industry that is plagued by as many shoddy operators as the car hire sector?

Many of the biggest brands have upped their game. But some elements of the industry are still notorious for poor treatment of customers through extortionate charges, often for fictitious or exaggerated “damage” to vehicles.

Each summer the consumer pages of newspapers fill with tales of their unscrupulous practices.

This week, CarTrawler, the Dublin-headquartered car hire booking engine for many airlines including Ryanair, suspended the UK operator Green Motion from its platform "indefinitely" over poor service.


Green Motion has sparked a wave of complaints from furious customers, including many from Ireland, over dubious charges. One man from Sligo recently had £1,200 deducted from his credit card after he returned his car with a seemingly invisible “dent”.

In contrite comments issued alongside CarTrawler’s statement, Green Motion said it was “disappointed” it has “fallen short” and wants to improve.

The recidivists of other serious industries usually face consequences for their practices. Consumers unlucky enough to do business with the very worst of the car hire sector must still regularly run risks.

The cross-border nature of many rentals – tourists from one country hiring cars in another – also leaves customers vulnerable to abuse from afar. Yet the European Commission, the only body with enough power, has done precious little to bring car rental companies to heel in recent years.

It forced bigger operators to tame their sales tactics in 2015, but it has failed to prevent the plague of dubious charges, often calculated on inflated repair costs, that customers are sometimes billed for when returning cars.

This practice is not uniform across all operators – many are honest. But it is too common to be an aberration.


There is no sector-specific legislation covering car hire. Yet the worst offenders in the industry act as if they inhabit a swamp and the commission must drain it.

Most frequent car hire customers have a tale of woe. Here is mine. It is minor, but typical of how customers are stonewalled.

Recently I travelled to the outskirts of London on a flying visit to an elderly relative. It’s a regular trip every couple of months. The drill is always the same. I fly to Stansted and pick up a rental car – usually for less than 24 hours – and drive to visit him.

On my most recent visit, and for reasons that I still do not understand, the prices for most major operators were three times their normal rate. So I plumped for a low-cost operators, Interrent, which is ultimately owned by a major operator Europcar. I prepaid €65 for a 24-hour rental, with a zero excess on the insurance.

I picked up the car, which was provided from the Europcar lot, with no problems at 10.30pm. When I returned at 8pm the next day, the check-in kiosk was closed. I popped the key into the drop-off box and flew home.

A week later I noticed an extra €65 charge on my card. I’ve been charged twice, I thought. So I called the number for the Interrent desk at Stansted. No answer. I tried again, and again.

Frustrated, I tried the Europcar desk. They spoke to the Interrent desk and said they would call me back. I heard nothing.

I rang the Europcar desk again. They told me it “must be a speeding fine”. I said it couldn’t be – the minimum fine in the UK is £100. It’s clearly an erroneous extra day’s rental.

Europcar gave me the number for Interrent’s UK head office – it has no customer service helpline. Head office couldn’t help. Try the Stansted desk, they said. Thanks for nothing. I phoned Europcar again. They gave me the number for Interrent’s Stansted back-office. I called 10 times with no answer. A dog with a bone. An annoying dog. But I wasn’t letting go.


Eventually, an Interrent employee picked up. I explained the situation. He looked up my file and said I dropped the car back late. I said that’s physically impossible. I had until 10.30pm, by which time I was halfway across the Irish Sea on a Boeing 737.

He said he would call me back in 15 minutes. Of course, he didn’t. I called him again. He said there was a mix-up: two Mark Pauls rented cars on the same day. I asked how that explains my charge for one extra day’s rental. He said he didn’t know.

He gave me an email address for the “customer service team”, but warned I would have to prove I dropped the car back on time. I said your kiosk was closed. What do you want? CCTV? Prove I dropped it back late, I said. He said it wasn’t his problem.

Two weeks later I had heard nothing back on email. I tweeted Interrent UK. They told me to explain over private message. We’ll get back to you, they said.

A week later I had heard nothing. I sent another private Twitter message. Nothing. A week later I messaged again. Nothing. A few days later I messaged again: “I’m not going away.”

A week later Interrent suddenly refunded the charge. It never explained why it had taken it in the first place. Every day, all across Europe, people have experiences like this, but often much worse.

The annual report of the European Consumer Centre in Dublin highlights that in 2016 complaints about car hire operators were its second largest category, constituting 11 per cent of all direct interventions. Of the 78 complaints where it intervened, 59 related to car hire firms in Ireland. This is not just a foreign problem.

“It is the view of ECC Ireland that, in order to address some of the shortcomings observed and narrow down the ability of certain traders in the car rental industry to treat consumers unfairly, the introduction of sector-specific legislation is necessary,” it concluded.

Legislators, take note



– Richard Woulfe, an intellectual property lawyer and partner at Mason Hayes and Curran (MHC) in Dublin, is probably best known for representing Facebook Ireland in the Max Schrems case taken by the Data Protection Commissioner. He is also a resident of Dublin's Dolphin's Barn, and so will have seen first hand how deprivation can take hold in inner city communities.

Woulfe, who also recently graced the pages of the New York Times in an article about social media giants in Ireland, is the lead sponsor in MHC of the €450,000 Engage & Educate Fund, which it runs with the Social Innovation Fund Ireland. The State also chips in with a few bob from the Dormant Accounts Fund.

The Engage & Educate Fund recently made its awards for 2018, releasing €150,000 to be shared between five social enterprises who also get access to a venture capital-like Accelerator programme.

The cash will be split between the Blue Diamond Drama Academy, which helps adults with intellectual disabilities; Deaf Education Online; the Suas Ireland Education Programme, which helps children in disadvantaged areas; Teen Turn, which provides role models for young girls; and the Intercultural Language Service, which helps migrants.

If anything in business deserves a “like” it is initiatives such as this.


– Carpetright, the troubled UK retail group with 20 stores in this State, revealed in its group results this week that its Irish business is still loss-making despite the booming property sector. Or perhaps because of it.

Carpetright attributed some of its Irish woes to the rental agreements it entered into “during our over-ambitious expansion into this market from 2001 to 2008”. Otherwise known as a Celtic Tiger hangover. Those commercial headaches still exist. And they can still floor some businesses.