Zipcar: Beware!

A friend recently signed up for a Zipcar account recently so I joined her account, since that way I can have a car when I’m in the city without having to drive mine back from Ithaca and worry about parking and such.

At first I loved it — two quick rentals for $50 saved me a lot of hauling music equipment around and were cheaper and more convenient than a cab ride. But then, the gotcha hit. And it is a big gotcha: $750 to be exact.

Zipcar’s friendly site explains its “six simple rules” breezily, and they sound obvious. One of them is, walk around the car before your reservation and report any damage. So far so good. I picked up my car on a Thursday night, looked it over, and drove off. I returned it three hours later and went home happy.

But sometime after I dropped it off, the car was damaged, most likely by the parking garage attendants. And according to Zipcar and their terms of service, I was responsible for that damage even though I had not caused it. Their contract says very simply, “If Zipcar is not notified of a problem at the start of a reservation, you will be held responsible for unreported damage to the vehicle after your reservation, and Zipcar may charge you damage fees, suspend, or may even terminate your membership.”

In other words, if the car is not damaged at the start of your reservation, and is damaged at the start of the next member’s reservation, you are responsible. Period.

In my lengthy and largely one-sided exchanges with Zipcar (most of my emails and questions went unanswered), I kept asking the same question over and over: If I could prove that the car was not damaged when I dropped it off — let’s say I made sure to photograph the car at the end of my reservation — am I still responsible for the damage?

They never clearly answered this question, but based on others’ experiences as well as my own (Yelp review, New York Times article) the answer is yes. They will not only hold you responsible, they will charge you the $750 fee immediately, before any appeal, before the car is repaired, and before your insurance adjuster or lawyer can inspect the vehicle. And based on what happened to me, they will do it all with vague and breezy emails, and ignore your questions.

I don’t know if this is a callous policy or a way of encouraging members to pay an extra $75 year for the damage waiver — even those of us, like me, who are already covered by our auto insurance plans or credit cards — but either way, it’s outrageous. And they’re being deliberately vague about it on their site and in conversations or emails with their customer service staff. So if you’re interested in Zipcar or you know people who are, make sure they understand this. And make sure they use a real credit card on their account, not a debit card; they took $750 directly out of the account holder’s bank account. If they’d charged a normal credit card, she could have put the amount in dispute rather than waiting for them to give the money back (which they did, four days after saying the damage wasn’t my fault).

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