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Originally published Friday, October 26, 2012 at 9:00 AM

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Think rental-car insurance covers everything? Think again

Lengthy dispute with Hertz over rental-car towing charges escalates.

Tribune Media Services

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...........if you dont buy the rental car insurance, read the fine print ahead of time... MORE

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Q: We rented a car from Hertz in Ireland and had a flat tire. After a lengthy dispute between Hertz and our credit card company, we're getting letters from a collection agency. I hope you can help me.

Here's what happened: When we rented the car, we purchased Hertz's optional insurance and collision damage waiver, which covers everything except wheels, tires, fuel contamination or keys. On the first day of the rental, we had a flat tire and a bent rim. We couldn't drive to the nearest garage because the car didn't have a spare.

After the vehicle was repaired and after we returned to the States, Hertz tried to bill our credit card for the repair and the tow. We realized that the cost of the tire and wheel would be our responsibility, but were surprised that the tow was not being covered by insurance. Our contract did not state any limitation of our insurance's towing coverage.

We disputed part of the bill with our credit card, and it credited us $527, which is the entire charge on the vehicle damage report. According to our bank, the dispute was settled in my favor because the rental contract lacked verbiage that says the customer understands there may be delayed and amended charges and that they may be charged to the credit card. Apparently, this language is required in Europe in order for vehicle damage charges to be charged to a credit card.

But that wasn't the end. I just received a letter from a collection agency. It is attempting to collect a debt on Hertz's behalf, and is threatening to damage my credit rating. My husband is a full-time U.S. military member, we are good people that have suffered an unfortunate event on what should have been the vacation of a lifetime. Can you help?

— Kathy O'Leary, Ballston Spa, N.Y.

A: Hertz should have let this go. It made too many mistakes with your rental, including handing you the keys to a car that didn't have a spare tire and failing to adequately explain what you would — and wouldn't — be liable for.

You thought that by buying its optional insurance, your tow would be covered. As a matter of fact, when a car rental company sells you its pricey insurance, it often promises you'll have "nothing to worry about," and I can imagine your agent giving you similar assurances.

Here's how you could have avoided this: First, you might have checked your rental car for a spare tire. If your vehicle doesn't have one, ask for a different car. With a spare, you might have avoided a costly tow.

Calling Hertz roadside assistance was the right move after your flat, but you could have made inquiries at the time you returned your car before leaving the country about what damages you'd be liable for. That's the best time to address what might be on your bill — not when you're 3,000 miles away.

Personally, I think that if you bought the Hertz insurance, your tow should have been covered. And if your credit card company sided with you (even if it was for other reasons) then Hertz should have just let this go.

I contacted the company on your behalf, and it dropped its collection claim.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance. His column runs twice at week at seattletimes.com/travel. Contact him at chris@elliott.org.

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