Don't trust your car rental company to be fair when it comes to cashless toll plazas.

I learned this lesson the hard way recently when I drove through several such plazas in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area over the course of six days in a rental from Dollar. A few weeks later, I received a bill for $98.93. Of that total, just $9.02 was for reimbursement for the actual tolls charged by the state of Florida. The remainder was for "administration fees" billed by Dollar.

In the interest of disclosure, it's true that I didn't read the fine print of my rental agreement before taking the car. If I had, I would have learned that Dollar charges a $9.99 administration fee each time a customer drives though an electronic toll booth in Florida, even if there's not a cash option at the plaza.

In other states, Dollar's fee is $15 per occurrence. In both cases, fees are capped at $90.

But it's also true that the agent in Sarasota, Fla., where I picked up the car, did nothing to alert me to that $9.99-per-toll fee, nor did he tell me that to avoid those fees I could purchase a SunPass at convenience stores all over Florida for $19.99.

Still, I'm no stranger to the SunPass system in South Florida, having been a resident of that state until just a year ago. So when that agent offered me a prepaid toll fee of $52 for the six days, I declined, knowing I wouldn't go through nearly enough cashless toll plazas to get value out of that. Instead, I figured, Dollar would end up billing me for the tolls non-SunPass holders electronically accrue through their license plates, plus some sort of reasonable administration fee. As it turns out, that would have been $9.02 plus maybe a handful of dollars.

As I subsequently learned, I am far from the only Dollar customer to have received an unexpectedly high bill after doing business with the company. In fact, in January, Dollar and sister company Thrifty entered into a settlement in a lawsuit brought by the Florida attorney general's office in which the companies agreed to refund customers who were charged toll administration fees between 2011 and 2018 without sufficient or accurate disclosures.

Dollar's parent, Hertz, also reached a $3.7 million settlement early this year with the city of San Francisco, which had alleged in a lawsuit that Hertz didn't clearly disclose electronic tolling administrative fees for customers driving across the Golden Gate Bridge and also didn't offer customers an opt-out of the fees.

Moreover, Hertz and its Dollar and Thrifty affiliates aren't alone in charging dubious administration fees to customers who drive through cashless toll plazas. In 2017, the Avis family of car rental companies, which includes Budget and Payless, entered into a settlement with the Florida attorney general's office similar to the one Dollar and Hertz entered into this year.

The issue extends well beyond the Sunshine State or the Bay Area. Seventeen states make use of E-ZPass electronic tolling. And on its website, Thrifty lists 25 states for which it sells its PlatePass prepaid electronic toll product.

A review of the policies of the major U.S. rental companies showed that Dollar and Thrifty, with their administration fees of $9.99 per toll in Florida and $15 per toll in other states, charge the most to customers who use electronic tolling.

Those companies also provide the alternative of opting into a prepaid toll program for prices that vary by region. (As mentioned, the offer I received was $52 for six days.) Hertz charges administration fees of $5.95 for each day in which a driver incurs electronic tolls.

Charges at other companies vary. Payless charges a daily fee of $2.95, capped at $14.95 per month, beginning with the first day a driver goes through an electronic toll plaza and continuing for each remaining day of the rental term, even if the driver incurs no more tolls.

Payless sister companies Avis and Budget have similar policies, but charge $3.95 per day, up to $19.75 per month.

The Enterprise Group of rental car companies, which includes Enterprise, Alamo and National, also charge fees of $3.95 per day, capped at $19.75. However, customers only incur a fee on days in which they pass through an electronic toll booth.

Audi's luxury brand, Silvercar, is friendlier, charging a one-time fee of $4.95, which spokesman Robert Ferrara told me is enough to cover the costs the company incurs from handling cashless tolling.

With all the companies, customers typically have the choice of providing their own transponders in order to avoid the fees, though my experience with Dollar raises questions about how frequently renters are informed about that option.

In an email, Lauren Luster, communications manager for Dollar parent the Hertz Corp., said that electronic tolling administrative fee policies for Dollar, Thrifty and Hertz are clearly stated in rental agreements and are also on websites and other corporate materials, including within the vehicles.

"We also recently updated our training to ensure that all customer-facing employees are fully versed on our product offerings and disclosures," she wrote.

As for the amount of the fees, she said they offset costs associated with dealing with electronic tolling, including providing transponders, paying the tolling authority and identifying the correct renters to bill.

In a phone interview, Michelle Couch-Friedman, executive director of the consumer group Elliott Advocacy, questioned why rental car companies should charge administrative fees for electronic tolling at all as opposed to the simpler and more transparent step of building administrative costs into the rental price.

"It's a questionable practice, because it really doesn't cost the rental agency anything," she said. "There's no one sitting around in a rental office that needs to be paid $19.99."

Couch-Friedman said that most of the complaints Elliott has received related to such fees have come from drivers who were unaware they would pass through cashless toll plazas. She advises consumers to learn the toll and transponder policies of rental companies before making a reservation.

Further, she said, renters who intend to use their own transponders should make sure the rental company's transponder is switched off in order to avoid being charged twice. 

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