Green Motion customers 'billed hundreds for existing car damage'
Customers at one of the UK's biggest hire car companies claim they were billed hundreds of pounds for damage they did not cause, the BBC has found.
An investigation found evidence staff at Green Motion were given incentives to charge heavy fees for damage - some of which was pre-existing.
One motorist said he was charged £1,200 for a dent mechanics said would have only cost £150 to repair.
Green Motion's CEO said it did not endorse overcharging its customers.
Richard Lowden told BBC Inside Out: "We are not aware of any franchise that is incentivising their staff to find damage.
"This is not something that we're familiar with nor would we endorse nor accept."
But a whistleblower told the BBC staff at his branch exploited customers for profit.
"We pretty much saw the people coming through the doors as 'how much can we get out of this person?'," the former Green Motion employee said.
"Pretty much the more money we got out of them, the more we made for ourselves.
"I knew that sometimes a scratch wasn't even there - but I knew that if I charged them, I would then get a commission and a bonus. I was just focused on the cash really."
The whistleblower said that after a customer paid for the damage, the car would not always be sent for repair.
"Usually, if there was a new scratch on the car we would charge the customer for it and we would actually rent the car out again, probably the next day or even the same day, a few hours later."
That could mean staff might try to charge the next customer hiring the vehicle for the same damage, he added.
'Charged hundreds for a tiny scratch'
Joy MacKnight was one customer who got stung by high damage fees.
When renting a car for a short holiday, Ms MacKnight said an employee told her not to worry about scuffs as "they can just buff them out".
But when returning the car, she was told she would have to pay for a tiny scratch on the bumper of the car.
"I was stunned. I said to [the inspector] - you've got to be joking me," she said.
But by the time she returned home, Green Motion had charged her credit card £769.80.
Andrew Petterson said he had a similar experience when employees forced him to pay £1,200 for existing damage.
"I was initially reluctant to take the car in question out because it was riddled with damage.
"It was in an atrocious state and all the various staff I spoke to said it was the only car they had so I ended up just keeping it for eight days", he said.
Mr Petterson said it only got worse when he returned the car.
"The attendant discovered new significant damage which turned out to be a micro-dent on the already heavily damaged panel, which most likely was already on the car", he said.
"They then tried to frogmarch me into the office so I could sign a liability form and pay them up to £1,200."
Baz Ali - a mechanic unconnected to Green Motion - took a look at the damage to Mr Petterson's car and quoted a much smaller sum of £150 for its repair.
Green Motion said there were inconsistencies between different franchises and some had been given "a little more free rein than they should have over the years".
It said it had since lowered its damage charges and customers would now have until 10:00 the following day to report any pre-existing damage on the vehicle.
How to avoid unexpected payouts
Consumer group Which? has advice on what to do if you think a car hire company has unfairly charged you. General tips for motorists include:
- Before you drive the car away make sure any damage is recorded on the paperwork the company has given you and take your own photos of the car
- When returning it, make sure an employee checks the car for new damage with you and get a signed receipt saying there was nothing extra to pay
- If you find any unexpected charges are taken from your card, ask for an explanation and supporting documents from the company
- If you are not happy with the explanation tell the company the money has been taken "under protest" and inform your card company about the dispute
- If you paid by credit card you could make a claim against the card provider under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act
- If you paid by debit card you can ask your card company to use the chargeback system to reverse the payment
- The British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association can help with unresolved complaints about its members
Since BBC investigations began, some people have received a full refund from Green Motion, but others may remain out of pocket.
The full investigation can be seen on BBC Inside Out London at 19:30 GMT on BBC One on Monday 28 January and for 30 days after on the BBC iPlayer.