Hertz claims thousands of renters steal cars. Customers argue they've been falsely accused.
Some spent days in jail, others months. One woman alleges she was arrested more than two years after she returned the vehicle she was accused of absconding with. All claim that the rental company Hertz reported them to police for stealing cars they had properly paid for.
Now Hertz has to publicize its number of theft accusations. In a ruling Wednesday, a federal judge in Delaware sided with the request from attorneys for 230 customers who say they were wrongly arrested.
The total still depends on whom you ask. Hertz said it reports to police 0.014% of its 25 million annual rental transactions - or 3,500 customers. Attorneys for the renters said they believe the number is closer to 8,000.
Francis Alexander Malofiy, one of those lawyers, said Hertz's tendency to report missing cars to police without investigating first is unacceptable, either way.
"This is not a question of if it's happening. It's a question of how many people it's happening to," he said Friday in an interview.
Hertz, which has been battling these allegations since 2019, maintains that it only reports renters to police after "exhaustive attempts" to reach them.
"The vast majority of these cases involve renters who were many weeks or even months overdue returning vehicles and who stopped communicating with us well beyond the scheduled due date," the company said in a statement.
At several points in the coronavirus pandemic, securing a rental car has resembled a nightmare, even absent potentially false theft allegations. Car shortages have made customers desperate for vehicles as prices soared in tandem.
Hertz, specifically, has faced additional problems: It emerged from bankruptcy in June months after getting hit with a lawsuit alleging it had withheld a time-stamped receipt that could prove a man innocent of murder. Then, in a viral Twitter thread, a different customer posted a scathing letter she had written to the company to complain about her "Kafkaesque customer service" experience.
On Thursday, Julius Burnside described what he said was his experience renting a car from Hertz in 2017.
"Turned it in, paid for it, kept my receipts, went about my life, found out there was a warrant for my arrest and subsequently went to jail," he told MSNBC.
Other people told "Inside Edition" that they were similarly arrested after Hertz accused them of stealing cars they had paid for. A charge of felony auto theft against Paul-Anthony Knight was ultimately dismissed, the TV program reported, but not before he served jail time.
"I was thrown to the ground, I was arrested and I was locked up for over a week," Knight, of the Atlanta area, told "Inside Edition" last month.
Colorado resident Drew Seaser told CBS News he was stopped by customs officers at an airport and informed there was a warrant for his arrest in Georgia, where Hertz alleged he had stolen a rental car. Seaser said he had never been to Georgia or rented a vehicle from Hertz.
Those kinds of false theft allegations have not abated, attorneys for the customers said.
"Despite active litigation on false-police-report claims, Hertz customers continue to be arrested and that 'tiny fraction' continues to grow," the lawyers wrote in court filings, citing previous comments from a company lawyer that a "tiny fraction" of customers is wrongfully arrested.
The problem sometimes arises when Hertz cannot find one of its cars in a physical parking lot or its computer system, Malofiy said. So, he said, the company reports the vehicle missing.
Other times, Malofiy said, the confusion is caused by a customer swapping cars during their rental period or extending the time frame. If the credit or debit card charge fails to process correctly, he said Hertz's system generates a theft report.
Malofiy said the company does not update its police reports if a payment ultimately processes - leaving customers to flounder in the criminal justice system. In 2020, a spokesperson for Hertz told the Philadelphia Inquirer that a stolen-vehicle report "was valid when it was made" and that it was "up to law enforcement to decide what to do with the case."
The company's method of dealing with missing cars amounts to offloading responsibility for its inventory to taxpayer-funded law enforcement, Malofiy said.
"We're having police act as a strong arm for private corporations and private vehicles," he said, "when this is not what taxpayer dollars are supposed to be used for."