Help! The Police Seized My Rental Car and Avis Won’t Refund Me

Dear Tripped Up,

In late May, I flew with my daughter from California to Kennedy International Airport in New York, where I rented a car from Avis and headed to Connecticut for a three-day family visit. On day two, I parked the car in Waveny Park in New Canaan and when I returned, it was gone. The local police told me they had impounded the rental because Avis had reported it stolen to the New York Police Department. I had planned to spend the last day of my trip with my 80-something mother, whom I had not seen for three years because of the pandemic, but had to waste precious hours on hold with Avis’s customer service department. They eventually offered me a new car but I was unable to coordinate picking it up, so we ended up relying on my sisters to get around. I was only able to spend a few hours with my mom and had to take a $100 Uber back to the airport. I asked Avis not to charge me for the rental, but they did, $653, and when I disputed the charge with Capital One, Avis fought me. I can’t believe Avis is renting out cars they have reported stolen, and then charging its clients. Can you help? Lorraine, El Dorado Hills, Calif.

Dear Lorraine,

It is very frustrating that Avis did not quickly issue you a refund or, even better, go out of its way to get you a new car. But my reporting shows that the real question is not whether Avis is “renting out cars they have reported stolen” — it’s whether they knew the previous renter had reported it stolen and still somehow gave it to you.

Through Edelman, a public relations firm, Avis sent me a statement from Beth Gibson, the company’s vice president for customer experience. In it, Ms. Gibson said Avis apologized to you and has now refunded the rental cost, and implied that the company had not known the rental was reported stolen.

“We regret that the refund did not occur more expeditiously. Avis only reports to authorities as a last resort and has comprehensive safeguards in place to prevent erroneous or premature theft notifications,” the statement continued, then it noted that the car rented to Lorraine “was reported stolen by a previous renter without our prior knowledge, which caused our customer’s rental car to be towed.”

What did the two police forces involved have to say? A statement I received from the New York Police Department at least partially backs up Avis’s story: On Friday, May 26, at 8:17 p.m., “a 42-year-old female” reported that she had earlier “parked her car in front of 277 Beach 87th Street” and later returned to find the vehicle was “missing.”

That Beach 87th Street address, in Queens, is cater-corner to Rockaway Beach’s Tacoway Beach, a food stand that serves “the taco that changed Rockaway,” according to a 2019 report in these very pages. So I suppose it is possible that this driver, on a Memorial Day weekend beach getaway, stopped for a taco and forgot where she parked and called the N.Y.P.D. to report the car stolen. Following this line of thinking, she later found the car but did not un-report the incident, and didn’t talk to Avis at any point during the night.

The N.Y.P.D. would not provide the full report, so I could not contact the previous renter. Nor would Avis give me her name, so it’s possible that she never once told the rental company she had reported the car stolen.

But that story is in conflict with the New Canaan police report you provided and which the town’s chief of police, John DiFederico, confirmed was genuine. According to that police report, the New Canaan lieutenant you spoke with called Avis’s Law Enforcement Hotline, where she spoke to a representative named Julio. Julio “confirmed the vehicle was reported stolen” and said Avis “had rented it to Lorraine without first contacting N.Y.P.D. to cancel” the stolen vehicle notification. If true, that would mean Avis knew the car had been reported stolen. Avis’s statement does not tell us when the company learned the car had been stolen, and the company has twice declined to answer my follow-up questions about timing. The company did add that they would have never rented the car to you if they had “been made aware.”

Whatever really happened, a note for travelers: If you believe your rental car has been stolen, you should report it to the police and then to the rental car company. If you then find your rental car on, say, the next block, you should report it un-stolen to both entities.

There is another conflict between Avis’s statement and your story. You told me you had not received an apology, and that the only message you got from the company was from a senior manager of customer advocacy who called and left a voice message. You forwarded it to me, and when I played it back, it was clear the manager neither offered an apology nor accepted any fault on behalf of the company, merely saying he had information to share and asking you to call back. (You told me you called him back once and left a message, but as of my deadline you two have apparently not connected.)

Through Edelman, Avis told me that they had in fact sent an email apology on Aug. 31 at 6:17 p.m. to the wrong email address. (They were off by one letter.) Avis declined to forward me a copy, and you said you never received it — even if the address was fixed and email resent.

You were just as outraged by Avis’s reaction when you told them your car had been seized, and on that count I agree. Avis’s customer service team should have recognized its error and gone out of their way to get you a new car as soon as possible, rather than provide you with what you said were untenable options to pick up a new car. At the very least they should have refunded you right away.

The Avis statement was also imprecise in characterizing their action as a simple “refund.” In fact, in a follow-up statement, the company said they “accepted the charge-back from the bank and processed the refund,” meaning they have given up on their initial effort to fight your credit card issuer.

I am frustrated that I could not fully get to the bottom of the story and determine who here was at fault, either solely our 42-year-old (alleged) taco enthusiast or also Avis. In fact, I filed a request for additional information through the N.Y.P.D.’s Freedom of Information Law unit. That might take months, though if there’s any interesting new developments, I’ll post them on social media.

But you did get your money back, and that’s something.

If you need advice about a best-laid travel plan that went awry, send an email to [email protected].

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