You know the toll that usually costs around $3? Well, imagine how you’d feel if the price tag suddenly rose to $53. Unfortunately, this is not a hypothetical scenario for many consumers, but rather an all-too-common headache associated with renting a car in the age of automated toll plazas.
Typically, when a driver goes through an automated toll without an EZ-Pass or another similar electronic payment device, the toll’s cameras will snap a picture of the license plate and mail a bill to the registered driver. This is obviously impossible with a rental, however. So when a rental company gets charged, it typically passes the cost on to the driver, along with a hefty surcharge, through a company like the aptly-named Violation Management Services (VMS), which works with Fox Rent a Car.
Fox – which has U.S. locations in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah and Washington – has recently come under fire for charging customers $50 in administrative fees for each unpaid toll, which as you know isn’t likely to cost more than a few bucks on its own. In other words, going through a $3 toll in a Fox rental car could trigger a fee that is roughly 1,600% greater than the “infraction” that caused it (the fee would be 5,000% greater than a $1 toll).
According to a class-action lawsuit filed by Averil Rothrock, a Seattle Attorney who fell victim to the astronomical toll service charges, “The ‘service fee’ is nothing other than an illegal scam to collect from customers amounts they do not owe.” The suit goes on to contend that Fox and VMS “conspired to turn Fox customers’ tolls into an illegal profit center for themselves.”
While Fox has pledged to change its policy (which it contends was only meant to deal with parking tickets) and only apply daily service charges of $3 to $5 to customers who don’t pay tolls, it certainly isn’t the only rental company known to operate in this manner. Not only are there numerous anecdotal accounts of consumers being surprised with out-of-whack penalty fees similar to those charged by Fox, but Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum also struck a deal in 2009 with Avis and Hertz, requiring them to provide Floridians who rented vehicles between March 1, 2008 and September 30, 2008 with refunds for toll fees that were improperly disclosed.
Apologists for this type of practice say that the high fees are needed to cover the cost of the paperwork that must be processed between a rental company, the toll authority, a customer, and his or her credit card company. But you try telling that to someone who’s on the hook for a charge in excess of $50 when it should truthfully be $3.
However, the question we must ask ourselves is not why these fees are being charged but how we can avoid them, and luckily, there are a few easy ways to do so.
- Avoid Toll Roads: This is certainly easier said than done, especially if you rent a car while on vacation, but your smartphone should be able to tell you where the toll roads are as well as provide alternative routes that you can use to avoid them.
- Bring Hard Currency: While not all tolls provide the option of paying in cash, most do, so always make sure you have both some cash and some change in your car. The latter will be useful in feeding meters anyway.
- Bring an E-ZPass: If you already have an E-ZPass and are traveling to one of the 14 states that support the device, bring it along and eliminate all worries. The same holds true for any electronic toll payment devices used in other states.
- Call the Rental Company: Asking the rental company whether there are any toll roads without cash lanes on your planned driving routes and how to deal with them could prove quite helpful. These are surely questions the customer service folks hear regularly and will most often be knowledgeable about.
Ultimately, the potential presence of hidden toll fees should also offer a lesson in the importance of reading contracts thoroughly prior to signing them. It might seem like a pain, but as always, the practice will save you money!