Trading Standards officers in Britain recently raided the offices of one of Europe's biggest car rental companies as part of an investigation into overcharging on damage charges by Europcar UK, according to Reuters.

The Daily Telegraph  says it has evidence that "suggests the firm's UK arm may have profited to the tune of millions of pounds by inflating the cost to consumers of windscreens and other repairs by up to 300 per cent. Trading Standards is investigating the firm over billing concerns including overcharging for repairs", the paper reports.

Europcar is carrying out its own internal investigation and said it was co-operating fully with the Trading Standards investigation

A whistleblower says staff were paid cash incentives for finding some scratches he "could hardly see". 

The Telegraph has revealed that "a Europcar whistleblower, who manages one of its branches, has alleged that agents are given financial rewards for finding damage on hire cars.

"The employee, who spoke to the paper on condition of anonymity, said his employees could earn £4 (€4.42)per vehicle for spotting damage – the best teams, he said, can find damage on one in five cars.

He claimed the top-selling agents can earn bonuses of £30,000 and Europcar earns extra profits from the scheme. "I wasn’t surprised to find we have been raided," he said. "Europcar should be held to account for ripping off its customers. It’s dishonest and unacceptable."

He said while he "hands out the £4 bonus when agents find damage, some scratches he can "barely see". A Europcar spokesman told the paper it could not comment on the allegations at this stage in the investigation"

BBC reports that customers who were defrauded could claim up to £30 million from the company.

Car rental is one of the most common sources of consumer complaints.

The European Consumer Centre deals with many complaints about car hire. It points out that there is no specific legislation in the car rental sector and has the following advice:

"Renting a car is often the most practical and convenient way of getting around whilst travelling in another EU member state. When booking car hire consumers are eager to save money, however it is important to also be on guard to avoid extra costs and unexpected surprises. Car rental is one of the top areas of complaint received by ECC Ireland with many complaints relating to charges for damages or problems with a rental car, insurance coverage and fuel policies. We’ve put together some handy car rental tips to help make the journey a bit smoother.

At the moment there is no industry specific legislation in the car rental sector. Consumers are protected by other instruments with more general scope such as:

Unfair Commercial Practices Directive 2005/29/EC

Directive 93/13/EEC on Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts

Car rental tips – dos and don’ts when renting a car in the EU:

1. Before hiring

When looking for the best bargain, bear in mind that very often prices quoted online only contain the basics. Make sure you check what is included in the final quote and what is not. Pay special attention to airport and other location related surcharges as well as the insurance coverage.

Always check the cost of extras that you may need during your rental: child seat, additional driver, extra insurance etc.

Pay special attention to the fuel policy and make sure it is explained to you clearly before you confirm the booking:

Collect full return empty policy implies that no refunds will be paid for unused fuel even if the whole tank was paid for upfront. As it is impossible to return the car empty, especially during short rentals, an alternative policy should be available on request.

The Collect full and return full policy means that the vehicle should be provided with a full tank of fuel. Unless the consumer was clearly notified within the Terms & Conditions when booking the car, fuel should not be prepaid. It should be a consumer’s responsibility to refuel the car with the correct fuel type before it is returned. If the vehicle is not returned with a full tank, the consumer should bear the cost of refuelling.

Check age restrictions.

Check the cancellation policy.

When renting abroad, familiarise yourself with the rules of the road.

2. Collection of car

Normally a staff member should check the condition of the car upon collection. At this time all damage noted will be indicated on a special check-list or diagram, and you will receive a copy this document. If a staff member is not available to inspect the rental car, it is very important that you inspect it yourself, if any damage is present, make a written note of this and have it signed by an employee of the car rental company before you leave the premises.

Always request information on the policies in place in the event the car breaks down or, you are involved in an accident. Understand what is and is not covered under the insurance policy, also what excess may be charged to your credit card in the event of a claim.

Ensure you clarify what type of fuel can be used in the rental car.

3. During car rental

If the car breaks down, call the car rental company and follow the instructions provided. Do not repair the vehicle yourself without prior authorisation.

In case of an accident, you should always note down the names and addresses of everyone involved. If anybody is injured, or when there is a dispute over who is responsible, you should notify the police. Contact the car rental company immediately.

4. Returning the rental car

Try to return the car during the working hours of the car rental company and have it inspected by a competent employee. The condition of the vehicle should be confirmed in writing and signed by the representative of the company and the consumer.

If you are returning the car outside the working hours of the car hire company, you should park it in the designated area. You can take pictures of the vehicle as confirmation that it was returned in good condition.

Cars returned outside working hours are inspected for damage on the following day and therefore the excess can still be charged to a consumer’s credit card.