Car rental companies are charging different customers hundreds of euro for the same pre-existing damage, despite not actually repairing the vehicles, Independent.ie can reveal.
Some drivers have exposed how they were forced to pay for damage even though the vehicles were never repaired and continued to be hired out.
One couple, from Yorkshire in the United Kingdom, were forced to pay €700 for scuff marks on the wheel and front bumper on a recent trip to Ireland.
The indicator on the wing mirror was broken when they picked up the car, the front rear door had a dent and there were a number of scratches.
There were nine pieces of damage in total noted on the rental agreement before they even drove the car.
"It really left a sour taste in our mouths… it’s just upsetting as we're moving here soon and friends will be coming to visit us and I don't want them having similar experiences or being given this negative view of Ireland, when it's a wonderful country," Diane Maguire told Independent.ie.
"I wonder why these had not been repaired before hiring the vehicle out again, and why they charged so much for what is in fact minor wear and tear as the vehicle had not been involved in an accident."
A source who previously worked for an automotive importer in Ireland, negotiating contracts with car hire companies, said the industry needs to be overhauled and called on the government to start regulating car rental companies here.
"To make a long story short the car hire companies that charge people for damage to alloys and dents, don't actually even repair the damage or pay for the repair. The contract they have, depending on the agreement made, usually has an allowance for damages up to €500," the source said.
"So for example when you or someone before you scrapes a bumper and two alloy wheels, the car rental company charge you €600 for the damage, they don't repair it and at the end of the lease the car comes back. The automotive company then argues the damages are more than the €500 allowance and the car company argues it is less and they end up not having to pay for the repair at all despite charging multiple people for repairing the damage throughout the car's time as a hire car," they added.
Independent.ie has previously highlighted a number of incidents where customers were dubiously charged excessive amounts, including:
All these customers were eventually issued refunds after arguing their cases and providing photographic evidence showing the damage already existed - or didn’t exist at all.
Volkswagen Group Ireland, which leases vehicles to a number of major car rental companies, said: "The agreements that we have with car rental companies tend to vary depending on the rental company and brand, but generally, we charge the car rental company a set price per car as a default to cover acceptable damage, but any amount over this is charged accordingly."
Volkswagen Group wouldn't be drawn on exact figures, citing these as commercially sensitive, but did add; "It wouldn't be for us to comment on how the car rental companies charge their customers for damage, but we would say that it is prudent for rental customers to note any damage to the car prior to accepting it."
The "acceptable damage" varies depending on each deal with each car firm, the spokesperson confirmed.
"Again, this isn’t something we would share for commercial reasons and yes, we repair the cars ourselves before they are sold on again. This work can be done by various suppliers."
Diane Maguire and her husband Chris, who are moving to Co Wexford after they retire, said their recent experience took the good out of their trip to Ireland.
The couple rented a car here in October to travel to Wellington Bridge, where they recently purchased a home.
"I took a photo of the couple of things that were already wrong with the car including a broken wing mirror and scratches, they were on the list of pre-existing damage but when we returned the vehicle the guy went straight over and pointed to this tiny scratch on the wheel trim," Mrs Maguire said.
"The damage that was pointed out to me on the vehicle return was very minor, scuffs to a wheel trim and a scratch on the front bumper, yet they withheld €700. An excessive amount for a wheel trim scratch and a minor scratch to the bumper, which in any case was already there when I picked up the car."
When contacted for comment, the car rental company said it has now decided to issue the Maguires with a full refund.
"Having looked at this specific case again, we noticed an error in our inspection process which resulted in this customer being charged more than what they should have for these damages," a spokesperson said.
"The customer has since been contacted and we have offered our sincere apologies along with a complete refund."
Stuart Summerfield, from Co Sligo, is another customer who had a bad experience when he was charged for ghost damage.
The company withheld £1,205 (€1,371) from his credit card as it claimed there was a dent in the driver's door of the Peugeot 108.
However, pictures provided by Mr Summerfield showed no visible damage.
The engineer’s report did not provide any description of the damage but said the cost of repairs would be £1,126 (€1,281) and said the alleged damage renders the vehicle unfit for hire.
Despite this, Mr Summerfield learned that the company continued to hire out the car.
Mr Summerfield asked the company to provide photographs of the alleged damage and an employee said in an email: "The car is out on hire at the moment and is due back on Tuesday, I have told the location to ground the car so we see the extent of the damage and to have more photographs taken so we can assess the extent the damage."
The company, in a statement to Independent.ie, said it "did not share the view of the engineer that minor cosmetic damage requires the vehicle to be grounded or renders the vehicle unfit for purpose."
Mr Summerfield was eventually issued with a full refund.
He has since rented vehicles from other providers and had "no problems at all".
The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission received up to 200 contacts relating to car rental issues in 2018.
A number of these contacts had encountered difficulties with what appeared to be pre-existing issued with their cars, a CCPC spokesperson said.
A spokesperson for one of the rental companies contacted for comment said they take such allegations "very seriously".
"We have robust processes and procedures in place to ensure customers are only charged for the damage that they cause.
"On the rare occasion where a customer has been charged incorrectly due to an administrative error, we immediately reimburse the charges. Our business prides itself on excellent customer service and has been recognised globally for the quality of service we provide our customers."
The other companies did not respond to requests for comment.
The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Business said it is aware of recent reports in relation to car rental companies and claims regarding pre-existing damage.
It encouraged consumers to highlight their experiences with the Car Rental Council of Ireland, which is the representative trade organisation for the car rental industry.
"Difficulties with car rental services can involve consumers from outside of Ireland renting cars here, or Irish consumers renting cars abroad," a spokesperson said.
"Joint action on this matter was taken by the European Commission and national consumer authorities in EU Member States, including the Irish Competition and Consumer Protection Commission with the five leading car rental companies in Europe.
"The companies undertook that car rental prices should include all unavoidable charges, that information on additional insurance should be clear, that consumers should always be given the option to get and return a car with a full tank and that procedures for inspection of vehicle damage and for handling of damage claims should be clear and fair.
"The European Commission and the national consumer authorities also agreed that they would continue to monitor the car rental sector closely.
"Any suspected incidents of fraud should be reported directly to An Garda Siochana."
Paul Redmond, Chief Executive of the Car Rental Council of Ireland, said customers are advised to inspect the car and agree details of any other defects.
"The Council has no information pertaining to these arrangements [between car hire companies and automotive companies] and therefore cannot comment on the particular arrangement you refer to."
It is hard not to conclude that loyalty is for losers. And in no area is this more true than when it comes to general insurance. The business we give insurers for covering our cars and homes in the event of something untoward happening gets little reward.