By Julie Watts

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — Petrita Barnet has fond memories of the weekend she and her boyfriend rented a car from Budget to run errands outside of San Francisco.

They went to San Jose and Richmond and did some shopping.

Like most car renters, she inspected the car before and after with a Budget employee. Neither found any problems.

“They closed me out, gave me a receipt. It was like $94.23,” Barnet said.

But about a week later her credit card was declined due to a surprise charge, a $250 charge from Budget. The rental car company claimed employees smelled smoke in her vehicle.

“It was a shock…and it made my card go over the limit!” she explained.

The card company will actually have a hard time proving their case.

Rental car industry consultant Neil Abrams says the onus of proof is on the rental car company, which is obligated to notify you of damages during the on-site inspection. That’s the point at which they can make their best case and defend any charges imposed on the renter.

Budget’s smoking policy does note exceptions, like if the customer leaves before the inspection, an agent is unavailable or if the vehicle is returned after hours. But that didn’t apply to Barnet.

“I didn’t hear them say anything about smoking,” Barnet said.

And she’s not alone, there are several similar complaints online.

After contesting the charge in-person, a manager sent Barnet an email stating the charges would stand and even referenced a comment she made about a previous experience, accusing her of a pattern of treating vehicles poorly.

What recourse does the customer have? Well, the customer can dispute the charge with the credit card issuer.

But for Barnet, it never came to that, the day before our interview she got a call from Budget’s corporate office, with an apology about the charge.

They said it was an error, that it was meant for somebody else.

Budget did not respond to our request for comment.

When dealing with rental car companies there’s a number of things you can do to protect yourself during disputes.

And Barnet’s case serves as a great reminder that whenever possible, you should use a credit card to pay for purchases like these, so you have the recourse to dispute the charge.

And remember, debit cards don’t have the same protections.

It goes without saying you should also inspect the vehicle with an employee before you leave.

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