Renting a car? Beware of scammers with too-good-to-be-true prices

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As the rental car market is still being hammered by a shortage of vehicles, some travelers are finding deals online that might seem too good to be true. According to the Federal Trade Commission, they probably are.

Last month, the FTC shared a warning that rental car scams are on the rise. Looking to take advantage of record-high prices, fake websites are popping up, offering rental cars for cheap. The sites then ask the buyer to use a gift card or pre-paid debit card to pay for the vehicle.

The FTC received more than 2,000 complaints nationwide regarding rental cars in the first three months of 2021. A search of the Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker gave examples of people calling what they believed to be national car companies, ordering cars over the phone, only to have no car at any rental office when they arrive.

One person in Georgia claimed to have lost $840 attempting to rent a 15-person van for a Father’s Day trip. One claim in Miami said they were charged $1,712.57 for a car they never received.

Jonathan Weinberg, CEO of rental car website AutoSlash.com, says the scam is too new to have solid numbers on how prevalent it is.

“To be honest, they really didn’t exist before this year,” he wrote in an email. “It’s only because folks are desperate and prices are so high right now in many cases.”

Prices in Orlando are running double to triple compared with the same time last year, according to Weinberg, though he says they are down from highs in April where cars could cost as much as $500 per day. Weinberg says rates are fluid at the moment but average roughly $75 per day nationally.

During the pandemic, many rental car companies sold off portions of their fleets to stay afloat when travel all but stopped. Car manufacturing also halted during the early days of the pandemic and still has not returned to full capacity, hampered further by a microchip shortage this year, which means rental companies have been unable to replenish their lots with new cars.

The FTC offers several tips to avoid being taken in by one of the rental scams, starting with researching the company. If the first time you’re hearing of this company is during a Google search for car rentals, that probably isn’t a good sign.

Even though a site may appear legitimate, look for signs of quick production, such as poor grammar. Also, try searching the name of the company with the word “complaint,” “review” or “scam” in the search to see if others have reported issues with them.

Orlando International Airport has a section on its website, orlandoairports.net, showing all the rental car companies onsite or that work with the airport. If you see a company saying they have cars at the airport, check to see if OIA lists them as well.

If a deal seems to be from a legitimate company you’ve heard of, contact the company directly with a phone number you find on the company’s website.

And most importantly, no reputable rental car company will ever ask customers to pay with gift cards or pre-paid debit cards. If possible, the FTC recommends using credit cards, as you can dispute the charges later if necessary.

While most analysts predict the rental car shortage won’t go away anytime soon, Weinberg says prices are cooling off in a way that will make travel easier.

The key, he said, is to plan ahead.

“Renters making a last-minute reservation can expect to pay higher rates while those booking farther out will see less of an issue,” he said.

Want to reach out? Email tfraser@orlandosentinel.com. Follow TIFraserOS on Twitter.

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