Sunday, December 10, 2017
Politics

Charged too much for a toll by a rental car company? Read this story.

TALLAHASSEE — Paul Powers of Sun City Center feels he got ripped off. He wants his money back. Attorney General Pam Bondi promises to help.

A retired hospital executive, Powers is among the first to seek a cash refund from the state as a result of overcharges by rental car companies that slapped extra fees on their own costumers who didn't pay highway tolls. They didn't pay because their rental car lacked a SunPass device and were forced to drive through one of the growing number of "cashless" toll booths on Florida highways.

While renting from Avis, Powers skipped paying a $5 toll in June. Then Avis tacked on an administrative fee of $19.75 for a total bill of $24.75.

"It kind of irks you," said Powers, 76, a retired chief financial officer at Tampa General.

Those "administrative fees," which show up weeks later on credit card statements, are at the heart of Bondi's settlement, first announced on July 11.

Avis, for example, charged $3.95 a day even on days when a customer never passed a toll booth. The unregulated practice has gone on for years, threatening the tourist-friendly image Florida has spent billions cultivating. One Canadian paper called it "highway robbery." The state Legislature took a look at the problem a couple of years ago but chose to do nothing.

Since Bondi announced the settlement with Avis, Budget and Payless, claims are trickling in slowly, possibly because many affected consumers live far away and aren't aware of the settlement and won't unless they read Florida news sites. Bondi issued a single news release that got limited media coverage. Initial claimants are from East Hartford, Conn., West Babylon, N.Y., Sun Prairie, Wis., and Henderson, Nev., among other cities.

Customers have until Jan. 7 to file claims with Bondi's office in Tallahassee, including the rental agreement number and date the rental began. The settlement affects drivers who rented between Jan. 1, 2010 and July 10, 2017. Claim forms can be downloaded from Bondi's website, myfloridalegal.com.

Bondi's settlement with those three companies could be the tip of the iceberg. Her office has a mountain of unresolved complaints from customers of Dollar Thrifty, which charges the highest fees in the industry. Dollar Thrifty is owned by Hertz, the rental car giant that Gov. Rick Scott welcomed to the state with much fanfare in 2013, hailing the state's "pro-business attitude." Bondi's office says it is still negotiating a settlement with Dollar Thrifty.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, whose office oversees consumer services in Florida, also has received complaints from frustrated rental car customers.

Visiting from the Buffalo area, Dennis Hohisel of Tonawanda, N.Y., told the Times/Herald he passed two 70-cent toll booths on State Road 112 in Miami for a total of $1.40, but then Dollar Thrifty added a $15 service charge for each toll for a total charge of $31.40. "I am now added as another rube to travel to Florida," Hohisel wrote.

As for Paul Powers, he could be out of luck. He lives in Hillsborough and is a constituent of Bondi's, but rented his Avis car in Pennsylvania and was nailed on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a clear sign that the practice is national in scope and not limited to Florida.

Contact Steve Bousquet at sbousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet.

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