There I was, anxiously walking the huge Long Island Rail Road parking lot in Ronkonkoma, New York searching for my rental car. I had parked the Avis Hyundai Sonata sedan there earlier that day before boarding a train for New York City. Several hours later I was back to reclaim it, only to fail to locate it.
I had searched for more than an hour, thinking that I might have forgotten where I parked it that morning. I knew better. I had found one of the few remaining spaces at the far western end of the lot near a tree line. I remembered that precisely. The day was beginning to fade, the lot was nearly empty, and the car was nowhere to be found. I was expected in Montauk, more than 50 miles away at the eastern tip of Long Island for a dinner I now knew I would not make. The car was stolen.
I flipped open my phone, its battery already drained from a day of use, and called Avis to report the absent car. I called 911 to report to the police, apologizing for not being a true emergency.
“That’s all right, honey, you didn’t know what else to do,” soothed a female voice. “I’ll call the Suffolk County police.”
The Run-Around Begins
What followed was a nearly half-year saga punctuated with dawdling inefficiency if not outright evasion and unexpected demands that inserted me between Avis and American Express. Meanwhile, an invoice from Avis for $22,649 hung over my head.
I had used my American Express credit car to rent the Hyundai after declining the additional damage and stolen-car coverage, depending instead on the “Car Rental Loss and Damage Insurance” as promoted by American Express to its cardholders. I knew my personal automobile insurance did not cover the rental car if it was stolen or damaged, so the American Express coverage would be considered “primary”.
The car was in my possession for less than 24 hours, the mileage driven less than five. It had been locked and I had the keys. Nothing was visible inside for thieves to see, no GPS unit beckoned to them. What’s more, it was a Hyundai. Who steals a Hyundai? Who takes one for a joy ride? No one, confirmed the cops.
I made numerous follow up phone calls the following day to Avis, American Express, my insurance agent in California and the detective assigned to the case. It quickly became apparent that the system is calibrated to deal with wrecked or damaged cars, not stolen ones. Among the most important of those next-day calls was to the regional Avis security executive, a contact only painfully wheedled from other Avis representatives. Unlike every other person I spoke with at Avis, he actually knew how to deal with the situation.
Using the incident report number supplied by the Suffolk County Police Department officer who investigated on the scene (with me in the back seat as she checked every corner of the parking lot), he checked the database that lists stolen cars. He also said that he personally visited the scene of the crime and the surrounding area and found nothing. “It’s a legitimate steal,” he said. He also said he would close out the rental contact immediately. Which I later learned he promptly did.
(He also said I would be charged for one hour’s rental, which turned out to be a hollow victory since Avis policy is to rent for a minimum of one day, which is what I was finally billed for. The charge to my credit card also had an “under 75 mile flat fee” fuel charge of $13.99, even though the closed contract shows 1 mile driven and no gasoline used. With taxes, the final credit card charge was $108.45.)
Am I Covered Or Not?
Though it is found nowhere online or in the pages of fine print American Express provides its customers, phone calls soon revealed that I was covered for up to $50,000 when a rental car is stolen. At fleet prices, the Hyundai surely cost Avis less than half that amount. I was confident that I would have no liability and that the matter would be shortly and simply resolved.
Not exactly. After I returned to California, Avis and American Express—through its underwriter, AMEX Assurance Company, and its administrator, Cambridge Integrated Services Group—proceeded with a blizzard of form letters, online status reports and e-mail exchanges. Given that I had been deemed innocent of wrongdoing by the police agency involved and was covered by insurance according to American Express’ own guidelines, it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that the process was designed to exhaust patience and resolve.
I knew when Avis sent me an invoice nearly two months after the Hyundai was stolen that I was facing a war of attrition. And when the company followed with a two-sentence form letter eight days later, it seemed I had been found guilty after all. “Based upon the facts and circumstances surrounding the above referenced rental, Avis has decided not to rent vehicles to you in the future, for the following reason(s): Other: Theft.”
“They’re accusing you of theft,” bellowed an outraged criminal-defense attorney friend when I showed him the letter. “You are the victim.”
The Anxiety Mounts
What also did not arrive in a timely manner was a theft affidavit form that the Avis security executive told me to expect in short order. One finally arrived in the mail more than three months later. And it came from American Express/Cambridge, not Avis. And it came long after American Express/Cambridge had informed me that “no further documentation” would be required of him.
What’s more, Cambridge had started a clock ticking. “If all documentation is not received within 60 days of the report date, we will close our file,” read the letter.
I was in the middle of a tug-of-war between the Avis claims office in New Jersey and the Cambridge team of adjustors in Ohio. First came Cambridge’s demand for a written police report, first from Avis and then from me. Meanwhile, I had been told by the SCPD records department representative reports were delayed eight months and more. I should not expect one before then.
The records supervisor advised me to apply online and print out the form requesting a report, which would not expedite matters but would at least prove that I had tried to obtain the report. Avis also tried to get a police report, to no avail. Without the report, the Cambridge supervisor told me 2-1/2 months into the process, nothing could happen.
Three months after the vehicle was reported stolen to all interested parties, Cambridge finally attempted to obtain a police report on its own. The adjustor told me that the SCPD told her “no record was found” of the stolen car. The adjustor asked if I had “more specific information” regarding how to identify the stolen car. I emailed back to point out that the supplied incident number was the specific record locator and had always worked for everybody else. Cambridge did not respond.
Though it was clearly not my responsibility, I finally called the SCPD detective squad involved and was fortunate to find the newly assigned detective on whose desk the file and report had quite literally landed. It was right in front of him, he said. I gave him the most sympathetic story I could muster, and he agreed to copy the report and mail it to me. It arrived a few days later, and I shared it with AE/Cambridge and Avis.
Welcome to Wonderland, Alice
It wasn’t over yet, not by a long shot. Cambridge began asking Avis for documents to back up its invoice. Among other items requested were the purchase invoice for the car and a “fleet utilization log” to show there wasn’t an idle rental car to take up the slack of the stolen car. “American Express knows we don’t supply fleet utilization logs,” the Avis claims examiner told me with frustration in her voice.
Cambridge had a few other tricks up its sleeve. Next it required a follow up police report stating that the car had not been recovered. The Avis claim examiner was beside herself. She told me that her supervisor had called Cambridge to point out the impossibility of the request, but got nowhere. “He doesn’t know what to do,” she lamented.
If it felt as if stalling tactics—if not outright intimidation—were being used, a file that grew to about three inches thick did nothing to disabuse me of that notion. For example, Cambridge asked Avis for its “salvage receipt,” patently impossible with a stolen car.
Finally, five months after the Hyundai was stolen, a letter from American Express Car Rental Loss And Damage Insurance arrived advising me that $19,792.55 had been paid to Avis’ Houston-based attorney. (This implies a legal tussle hidden from me, though that is speculation.) Still pending were Avis’ invoice items for loss of use and an administrative charge, but the language used in the transmittal letter seemed to indicate the matter was resolved. I can only hope.
As postscript, I have since discovered an alternative to reliance on American Express’ cardholder coverage that allows car renters to decline additional non-liability coverage at the rental-car counter while keeping their personal automobile non-liability insurance safely out of the mix. It’s called American Express Premium Car Rental Protection and offers primary coverage (which means one’s own automobile insurance isn’t involved) of up to $100,000 for a flat rate of $24.95 ($17.95 for California residents) for up to 42 days. That’s a total of $24.95, not per day. You sign up and it applies automatically for almost every kind of car every time you rent. However, the policy is underwritten by AMEX Assurance and administered by Cambridge. .