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Rental car companies use sniff test in deciding when to fine customers

Posted: 10:15 AM, Mar 26, 2019
Updated: 2019-03-26 11:10:08Z
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BALTIMORE — For non-smokers, the stomach-turning stench of stale cigarettes is suffocating. And once it's in the car, it seems near impossible to get out.

Rental car companies have devices that attempt to remove the odors. To offset the extended time needed to clean these vehicles, companies charge fees.

Dominique Stevenson was charged a $250 smoker's fee after her co-worker used her company card to rent a car at NextCar Rental at BWI Marshall Airport.

“Which I thought was peculiar because I know he doesn't smoke,” said Stevenson.

Stevenson and her co-worker disputed the charge with the manager and asked for proof.

“No one ever sat in the vehicle with him and said, ‘Okay, we smell smoke.’ There was nothing but this woman's word,” Stevenson said.

WMAR-2 News Mallory Sofastaii spoke with two other NextCar customers who claimed to have a similar experience. Jason Manelli, a spokesperson for the company, said they stand by their employees and their process when assessing fees.

“You know, the thing with smell is it's very difficult to show proof. We can show proof of damage from a photograph, we can't show proof of a smell,” Manelli said.

In the absence of smoking evidence such as a ashes, cigarette butts, or other debris, Manelli said they have a three-person verification process.

“So when a car is checked in at BWI Airport, an agent assesses the vehicle, does a damage walk around and checks the condition of the interior as well. If that agent determines the vehicle has been smoked in, the agent goes and gets the manager of the location to do an independent walk around and evaluation. If the manager agrees that the vehicle has a smoked-in smell, he will get one other employee,” said Manelli. “If all three individuals agree that the car's been smoked in, then we assess the fee.”

Out of the 21,530 transactions at BWI Marshall Airport NextCar location in 2018, 166 customers were charged a fee.

Joey Sypolt, the NextCar airport manager, oversees the cleaning process. He uses a machine that oxidizes odors in a small space. It can take upwards of five to eight hours to detail and suck out the smell. Still, the company has received dozens of complaints from customers about a smoked-in smell. Manelli said they're always looking for new tools and technology to improve the process, but wanted to emphasize the ripple effect and disruption that happens when someone smokes in one of their vehicles.

"So in just one day, I have three sitting here right now," said Sypolt.

NextCar will also fine drivers for excessively dirty cars. If it's a little trash left behind, they say they won't charge a fee, but noticeable pet hair and crumbs ground into the cushions and carpet will result in a $250 fine.

"We're in the car rental business. The car sits you make no money," Sypolt said.

The decision to fine someone may feel subjective, but you agree to the company's terms when you sign the contract.

"We know an excessively dirty car when you see it, you know a really badly smoked in car when three people independently smell it, so I'm sorry I can't give you a more definitive answer on that, but it's really a judgment call based on our years of experience and what's normal wear and tear inside of a car," Manelli said.

With spring break around the corner, the Better Business Bureau is reminding drivers to do their research before renting a car. Below are their recommendations. The reminder is particularly timely after the BBB received more than 400 complaints about a Michigan rental car company. In January, the Michigan Attorney General sent a cease and desist letter to Executive Car Rental for failing to return customer's deposits, among other allegations. Executive Car Rental has 12 locations in Michigan and 4 in Florida. To read more about the company's alleged violations, click here .

BBB recommendations to making your rental experience a little easier:

  • Shop around, look for additional discounts through credit cards and membership organizations.
  • Understand your insurance policy and whether you'll need to buy coverage from the rental car company.
  • Consider location. Renting from an airport-based rental facility may be more expensive than an off-airport location. Also, many rentals have an extra drop-off fee if you are returning the vehicle to a different location than where you picked it up.
  • Ask about late or early return fees and the company's policy and fees on tolls.
  • Read the fine print, contract, and make sure you understand their terms.
  • Thoroughly inspect your rental car before you drive away. If you see any damage or defect, make the company representative aware of it immediately so that it’s noted on the car condition form. Take pictures of the damage and also of the mileage.
  • Before leaving the vehicle, be sure that the check-in attendant inspects the car’s body in your presence and that you agree about any damage.
  • Keep receipts and watch your credit card bill. Look for unexpected charges, such as damage to the vehicle, third-party toll bills, cleaning charges alleging you smoked in the car, etc. If you opt to return your rental with a full tank of gas, keep your receipt and record the mileage at the time of the fill.

To see their full list of recommendations, click here .