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Hertz - damage control

THE extra bucks the Hertz Corporation has been collecting for so-called collision damage waivers are bad enough. It got worse on New Year's Day, when Hertz started to hold customers who don't buy the waiver liable not only for collision damage but for theft and vandalism, as well as the total loss of the car.

Until then, Hertz had absorbed these costs; now customers feel even more pressure to buy this insurance-that-is-not-really-insurance.

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Now we learn that Hertz, over several years, systematically bilked customers on auto repair costs - overcharging for repairs or even sending bills for nonexistent damage to those who had refused the waiver.

Hertz officials insist they discovered the scam themselves, have dismissed those responsible, and are cooperating with the United States Justice Department.

The $13 million that Hertz made on questionable repairs is small potatoes, however, compared with the estimated $1 billion the car-rental industry takes in on (often unnecessary) damage waivers in a year.

Businesses often prefer to let their own insurance cover the costs of whatever fender-benders traveling employees get involved in.

Personal travelers with cars of their own are often better covered than they realize - but hometown agents may counsel buying the waiver anyway just to avoid hassle.

State insurance regulators are beginning to listen to complaints about all this. Credit card issuers are starting to respond, too, by including coverage for those extra risks when car rentals are charged to their cards. This is a heartening market response, and one that casts doubt on industry credibility when it pleads rising costs.

The car-rental companies exist to make money, but they are supposed to do it by providing a service, not by shaking down their customers.

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