James Turner was initially surprised when he returned his rental car to Acme Rent-a-Car in New Haven, Conn., and was billed an additional $450.
But his shock turned to anger when he learned the charge was a fine for speeding in his rented minivan and that the money had been automatically withdrawn from his bank account without permission, the New Haven Advocate reported.
Acme charges customers a $150 fine every time the car’s electronic tracking device detects speeding for more than two minutes. According to the Advocate, the company said the fines are intended to discourage speeding and save lives.
Turner was never stopped by law enforcement or issued any citation for violating any traffic laws. He testified in court that he felt his privacy had been invaded and even if he had been aware the vehicle had a tracking device, he would not have known what it would be used for, reported the Advocate.
Rental car companies equip vehicles with Global Positioning Systems and other wireless devices to provide driving directions, pinpoint a location, and to track stolen vehicles. But the technology can also record rates of speed and travel routes – features being used by some companies to fine customers for violating the rental agreement.
As GPS technology becomes more commonplace in vehicles, more rental car companies may find it appealing – and profitable – to track where vehicles are taken and how customers operate them.
This trend raises concerns among privacy advocates and the general public because of the ambiguity of the law outlining what types of tracking are legal. Given the current lack of regulation, almost any use of GPS technology is lawful.
Cases brought in California, Arizona, and Connecticut accuse rental car agencies of monitoring driving habits with only a discreet reference made to the practice on the contract. Plaintiffs state this is not adequate to inform customers of a new technology with which they may not be familiar.
Customers claimed they were not verbally made aware of the penalties that would result from crossing state lines or exceeding the speed limit.
A customer who rented a car from Payless Car Rental in California for a Las Vegas road trip was presented with a bill for almost $1,400 for a two-day rental. He was shown his rental agreement, where even more obscure than the out-of-state forbiddance was the penalty: $1 for each mile driven, regardless of location.
Identifying vehicles with GPS can be impossible for customers because the unit is often placed under the dashboard. Many companies say the system is solely to locate stolen cars and is not even activated until one is reported missing.
This reasoning means that renters are often not informed of the presence of GPS to prevent thieves from knowing whether a vehicle can be tracked.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Hertz only activates the device if it is suspected that a vehicle has been stolen. This policy is also enforced at Budget and Avis, but independent franchise offices can use their own discretion about how to use the technology.
Rental car companies who have a policy of monitoring customers’ activities say it is their right to know where their vehicles are at all times. Critics charge the practice is a way to make more money off unsuspecting customers.
A California assemblywoman has voiced her concerns about the issue and proposed a bill that would require rental car companies to tell a customer when a reservation is made whether the car has electronic surveillance technology and what it is used for.
The disclosure would be oral as well as written in the contract in at least 12-point type. Most states do not have laws governing the use of GPS.