Thousands of unwitting Hertz customers routinely charged $32.25 for a single bridge crossing. Case brought to counter long-standing problem and compensate victims.
SAN FRANCISCO (March 1, 2017) — City Attorney Dennis Herrera today sued the Hertz Corporation and its business partner for misleading customers and engaging in unlawful, unfair and fraudulent business practices by charging steep fees for a “toll service” to unwitting rental car customers who cross the Golden Gate Bridge.
Hertz is fraudulently and deceptively inducing its customers who drive across San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge to purchase an “optional” toll service called PlatePass, according to the lawsuit Herrera filed Wednesday, March 1, in San Francisco Superior Court.
On other California toll bridges, PlatePass is an optional service that permits Hertz customers to bypass cash toll lanes and use the faster electronic FasTrak lanes without having to establish a FasTrak account.
But on the Golden Gate Bridge, ever since it went cashless four years ago, Hertz customers neither choose the service, nor receive sufficient notice to avoid it. They neither receive its supposed benefits, nor consent to its charges. Instead, by simply driving over the Golden Gate Bridge a single time, as millions of tourists do each year, Hertz customers are charged not only the undiscounted toll rate of $7.50, but up to $24.75 in extra fees. For many customers, that means a $32.25 bill to cross the bridge one time — more than four times the toll rate.
Worse, Hertz does not charge and disclose these fees on the receipt it provides to customers upon the close of the rental, but instead provides its customers’ confidential personal credit card information to a third party who slips in the charge at a later date.
“These practices are not only unfair; they’re unlawful,” Herrera said. “Rather than Hertz putting you in the driver’s seat, they’re taking their customers to the cleaners. I am not going sit back and allow one of the largest rental car companies on the planet to take advantage of a world-renowned San Francisco icon to rip off thousands of California visitors and residents. This lawsuit is designed to put a stop to this illegal scheme and force the companies involved to pay their victims back.”
The lawsuit alleges that the Hertz Corporation, and its business partner American Traffic Solutions, Inc., engage in false advertising and unfair, unlawful and fraudulent business practices in violation of several state and federal consumer protection laws, including California’s landmark 1988 legislation that specifically prohibits abusive practices in the rental car industry.
Over the past four years, tens of thousands of Hertz customers have unwittingly paid millions of dollars in PlatePass fees for the simple act of crossing San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, one of the “Seven Wonders of the Modern World.” The bridge is one of the top-10 tourist destinations in the United States. It was, and remains, the only roadway between San Francisco and California’s northern counties. Forty million vehicles cross the bridge every year.
Since March 2013, it also has the distinction of being the only bridge in California that does not collect tolls in cash on site. Instead, motorists drive through and pay their tolls via FasTrak or one of several free and convenient payment methods — including paying online, in person or by phone.
Since this conversion to what’s known as all electronic tolling, Hertz’s PlatePass service has simply become a scam. Motorists no longer receive the advertised benefit of faster passage. Every lane is the same and available to everyone, with or without PlatePass or FasTrak. And Hertz customers can no longer avoid the service and its steep fees by paying their tolls via an optional cash lane — something available to motorists on every other toll bridge in the state. Worse still, Hertz does not disclose to its customers that they can avoid PlatePass and its expensive fees by using the free and convenient payment options the Golden Gate Bridge offers.
“I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in a Hertz rental car only to find a charge for over $30 from a third-party on my credit card weeks later,” said Ruth Newman of Louisville, Ky., who visited the San Francisco Bay Area in September 2014, when the toll was 50 cents less than it is now. “I was never made aware of a bridge toll, extra charges or PlatePass at the time of the rental. I later found out I was charged the $7 bridge toll, plus $4.95 for each day of my rental, even though I only used the bridge once. This makes no sense to me. It amounts to more than a 350 percent markup on a $7 toll, which seems highly unethical.”
“To us it was a complete surprise to be billed for something we knew nothing about,” said Ramon Cerro, who was visiting Northern California with his family from Huntsville, Ala., rented a Hertz car in Sacramento and crossed the Golden Gate Bridge on the way to Santa Cruz. “We expected to stop at the booth and pay a toll. Nobody was there. Later we get a charge on our credit card that was much larger than the toll. We did not know that such charges were possible. The PlatePass fees were never disclosed to us. I am sure this practice goes on every day and they collect millions of dollars from uninformed drivers from other states.”
The problem is not confined to Hertz or the Golden Gate Bridge. In recent years, consumers have lodged thousands of complaints about rental car toll services with various government agencies and consumer and business watchdog groups. Hertz has sought to insulate itself from the growing chorus of anger over these unlawful practices. In order to rent a Hertz car, customers are required to waive their right to a jury trial and waive their right to participate in a class action lawsuit.
Consumers face an even greater threat from fraudulent and deceptive services like PlatePass as more and more toll roads and bridges convert to all electronic tolling.
Herrera’s lawsuit seeks a court order halting these deceptive practices, restitution (with interest) to victims, and civil penalties of up to $2,500 against each defendant for each unlawful act.
“People leave their hearts in San Francisco,” Herrera said. “We’re going to make sure they don’t have to leave their wallet with Hertz when they do.”
The case is: People of the State of California v. The Hertz Corporation et al., San Francisco Superior Court case no. CGC-17-557336, filed March 1, 2017. Additional documentation from the case is available on the City Attorney’s website at: www.sfcityattorney.org
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