- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 4, 2001

NEW HAVEN, Conn. James Turner found out the hard way that his rental-car company caught him speeding and charged him for it.
Mr. Turner was driving the car on a business trip to Virginia in October when he had a problem using his bank card.
His bank told him the car-rental company, Acme Rent-A-Car, had withdrawn $450 from his account in a 24-hour period.
That's when Mr. Turner learned that Acme is using global-positioning satellites (GPS) to catch customers speeding and is automatically charging fines to their ATM cards.
Acme claimed to have caught Mr. Turner speeding in Westport, Conn., on the New Jersey Turnpike, and somewhere in Virginia.
"They told me that I was actually tracked by satellite across seven states," the 44-year-old theater box-office manager said.
Mr. Turner is suing in small-claims court, and the state Consumer Protection Department filed a complaint Monday accusing Acme of violating Connecticut's Unfair Trade Practices Act by failing to warn customers properly about potential fines. Acme has only one location, in New Haven.
While other car-rental companies use GPS to track stolen cars or give directions, observers said they have not heard of any other companies tracking speed and levying fines. Six national car-rental companies said they do not track customers' speeds.
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, whose office investigated Acme, called the practice "abusive and illegal." The state said it found 26 customers who were forced to pay speeding penalties.
Max Brunswick, a lawyer for Acme, insisted that the practice is legal and is spelled out in customers' contracts: The car will be tracked and the driver will be fined $150 for each speeding violation.
He said Monday that the company is amenable to offering refunds and plans to more clearly define the policy in customer contracts.
"Our goal has never been to make money off of this. Our goal has been to enforce speed limits on our cars and prevent the catastrophic claims that can put us out of business," Mr. Brunswick said.
Neil Abrams, president of Abrams Consulting Group, a consulting firm for the car-rental industry, said that as long as the terms of the agreement are clear, tracking and fining customers is not unfair. In Mr. Turner's case, though, disclosing the policy in the contract might not be enough, he said.
"I would say in something like this there is a duty of the rental company to give a greater disclosure some sort of initialed acknowledgment, a verbal exchange between the customer-service agent and the customer," he said.
Acme employees in New Haven would not comment and refused to release a copy of the rental contract.
Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the practice is an invasion of privacy.
Daniel Horton of New Haven said he was not aware of Acme's policy when the company deducted $250 from his debit account a few months ago. Mr. Horton said he continues to rent cars from Acme because he does not have a credit card and none of the other companies in the area will accept a debit card.
"I don't like it, but I don't have no choice," the 25-year-old construction worker said.
Bernadette Keyes, Mr. Turner's attorney, said a main problem with Acme's policy is that customers cannot contest the charges.
"Typically, when you get arrested for speeding, you see the cop and you look down at your speedometer," she said. "In this case, it's three days later. How do you know?"

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