Con Watch: Car Rental Scams

The cost of renting a car has recently skyrocketed, so you might want to be extra cautious when you find deals that seem too good to be true.

Car Rental website on a tablet computer / Shutterstock

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Steve Weisman is a lawyer, college professor, author, and one of the country’s leading experts in cybersecurity, identity theft, and scams. See Steve’s other Con Watch articles.

With the coronavirus pandemic starting to wane, more people are planning to take a summer vacation, and for many people that means renting a car. The bad news is that the cost of car rentals has increased dramatically because of high demand.

However, your friendly neighborhood scammer is more than willing to help you out. They are setting up phony car rental company websites – including some that appear to be legitimate car rental companies such as Avis or Hertz. They will often turn up at the top of search engine results because they are paid ads. Already, many victims of this scam are finding themselves without a car and without the money they paid for the non-existent rental.

The sham websites can look quite legitimate and be hard to distinguish from the real car rental companies. Always check the URL of the website you use carefully before responding to an offer for a car rental. You also may want to go the extra step and determine who owns the website. The easiest way to do this is to go to ICANN, the non-profit organization that coordinates the Internet’s domain name system. Enter the domain name and click on “lookup.”  This will enable you to find out who actually owns the website. So for instance, if you think you are renting from Hertz but the website is owned by someone in Nigeria, you can be pretty confident it is a scam.

One of the other ways you know you are dealing with a scammer is that often they ask for payment through gift cards. Legitimate companies would never ask for this payment method.

The adage, “if it seems too good to be true, it usually is” still applies, so if your online search finds a particularly fantastic rate from a major car rental agency, you should check with the company’s customer service department using a phone number you know is legitimate. Unfortunately, this will likely confirm that the original great rate was a scam.

But even if you rent your car from a legitimate car rental agency, you are still not completely safe and secure.

A few years ago, the Federal Trade Commission issued a warning about risks that arise when you connect your phone to a rental car in order to access the car’s infotainment system and other features. The car may store your personal information such as your mobile phone number, message logs, contact lists, and even the content of text messages you received while connected. If you don’t delete this information when you return the car, it can be accessed by future renters, employees of the rental car company, or knowledgeable hackers.

The best way to avoid problems is not to use the car’s USB port at all. Instead, use a cigarette lighter adapter to charge your phone. If you do decide to use the infotainment system, you may be provided with options as to the information you authorize the system to access. Limit the access to only those uses that you need. Finally, and most important, when you return the car, make sure that you have gone into the infotainment system’s settings menu and deleted your device and your data.

Featured image: / Shutterstock

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  1. This is good information to have in general on car rental scams, but the first paragraph makes it very clear Summer 2021 the worst time/year for ANY kind of travel not absolutely necessary, period! You’re just begging to get ripped off in every way imaginable. Highest prices with maximum crowds. Off season, good deals with minimal crowds.


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