About a year ago, my wife was filling in paperwork to hire a car when the woman behind the counter suddenly looked up in alarm. “I’m sorry,” she said in a stage whisper. “The computer is saying: ‘Do not rent to this woman under any circumstances.’ It seems you’re banned for life?” There was an awkward pause before she leaned forward conspiratorially and said: “What did you do?!”
Good question. The short answer is nothing; my wife is innocent. What happened is this: she and I hired a car to visit her family for Thanksgiving and dropped it off in Boston at 9am. The company – which I won’t name because I don’t want it to set its lawyers on me – said we returned it at 9pm and insisted we pay them an extra $350. We said: “Hell, no,” so it referred us to debt collectors who hounded us for weeks. This could have had a terrible knock-on effect on our credit score and ability to get a mortgage, but a lawyer friend helped us get the issue dropped – except we hadn’t realised the company had banned my wife from ever using it or its many subsidiaries again. (Which we would never do by choice – however, rental car costs have gone up 43% and it was the cheapest option.)
Being banned for life from a major car rental company is inconvenient, but our situation, which I strongly suspect was caused by a computer glitch, could have been far worse. Hertz is being sued by hundreds of US customers who allege they were wrongfully arrested after the rental company reported them to the police for stealing cars they say they had legitimately rented. A Nasa employee, who is part of the lawsuit, was allegedly arrested at gunpoint after Hertz reported the vehicle he had rented was stolen. One woman spent 40 days in jail – away from her kids and two-month-old baby – because she was arrested for car theft. Another customer spent seven months in jail and eventually signed a plea deal just to bring the ordeal to an end.
The allegations against Hertz have been public since 2019, but the case is back in the news because a judge recently ordered Hertz to unseal documents that show the company filed more than 3,300 police reports about stolen vehicles involving its customers each year. (Hertz had been trying to argue those numbers were “trade secrets” and should be kept confidential). As USA Today noted in a new in-depth piece on the issue: “That means over the past seven years since false theft report cases have been known to occur, theft charges have been levied against more than 23,000 people. How many of them were innocent paying customers is unknown.”
What exactly is going on? Nothing, according to Hertz. The company has described the accusations as baseless; it argues theft reports are “rare and happen only after exhaustive attempts to reach the customer”. The lawyers in the class action, meanwhile, argue that Hertz has a faulty computer system and can’t keep track of its inventory; instead of investigating “missing” cars itself, they say it outsources the work to police stations. The police, by the way, aren’t always thrilled about this – according to USA Today, court records show that “after multiple reports of stolen vehicles that ended up being located on Hertz’s lots, [some police] agencies reportedly said they wouldn’t take new reports from the company”.
Obviously I don’t know all the facts in the ongoing Hertz lawsuit. But the case has striking parallels with the UK’s Post Office scandal, where hundreds of postal workers were accused of theft due to a faulty computer system designed by Fujitsu; scores of lives were ruined because management trusted technology over low-paid workers. It’s not just technology that is to blame, of course – it’s an economic and legal system that protects and prioritises corporations over people. And that is not a bug in the system, it is a feature.