Former security director: Innocent drivers arrested in 'stolen' rental cars an industry problem

Posted at 5:02 PM, May 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-23 18:18:19-04

CLEVELAND — We recently told you about innocent drivers being detained, arrested and even thrown in jail after a rental car company reported their cars as stolen. Now a former security director at a competing company is telling us that false stolen vehicle reports are an industry-wide problem.

READ REPORT: Hertz customers detained, arrested after rental vehicles mistakenly reported stolen

Security director speaks out
Walt Zalisko was not surprised by our investigation. After he retired as a police chief, Zalisko got a job as a security director for the Avis Budget Group, one of the world’s largest rental car providers.

He said the same thing happened to customers who rented cars from Avis and Budget during the approximately five years he worked for the company.

“I could count at least 20 times that I’ve seen this,” Zalisko said.

“I’ve had a number of experiences where that happened,” he said. “People get pulled over at gunpoint saying you’re driving a stolen car.”

How it happens
Zalisko said rental car companies follow a multi-step process before reporting a vehicle as stolen.

“Theoretically, it’s not reported stolen until 30 days from the day it was due back,” he said.

First, the company calls the customer to ask if they would like to extend their rental agreement and when they plan to return their vehicle. If the company cannot reach the customer, it sends certified letters demanding return of the vehicle. Then, if the customer fails to respond, the company attempts to repossess the vehicle.

Only after repossession is unsuccessful does the company notify police, according to Zalisko.

The problem, he said, is that when the car is located, either the company, or police, fail to update their computer systems to show the missing vehicle
was returned and put back into service.

“They’re still in the computer as stolen,” he said.

Diana’s dilemma
“With all the tech today, how hard is it to keep track of your cars?” said Diana Johnson. “It's disgraceful.”

The North Olmsted grandmother was detained at the Canadian border after she was accused of stealing a 2018 Nissan Altima she rented from Hertz in Cleveland.

“It was terrifying,” said Johnson. “I rented a car from Hertz, not hurts.”

It turned out the car belonged to another company, National Car Rental, which reported it stolen a few days earlier.

“They gave me a stolen car!” she said. “It was only a Hertz attendant that helped me. They checked me out.”

Border patrol agents called Buffalo Police. Officers seized the vehicle. Eventually, she was released.

“Seven hours I was detained there in that locked area,” she said. “Seven longest hours of my life.”

Company responses
5 On Your Side Investigators reached out to the Avis Budget Group several times. No one responded to our requests for comment.

On Your Side Investigators also reached out to Hertz about the false stolen vehicle reports.

Tressie Rose, senior director of external communications, declined our on-camera interview request and sent us the following statements:

“Our customers’ safety and satisfaction are our top priorities. False reports of stolen vehicles are extremely rare, and we take them very seriously. When it has occurred, it has been the result of unique and extenuating circumstances. Our process for determining when a vehicle is reported stolen has multiple steps to ensure accuracy, and in the rare instance an error within our control has occurred we take responsibility. We conduct thorough investigations and make every effort to remedy the situation. We have consistently made changes to improve our processes and we will continue to do so throughout all areas of our business to provide customers with the exceptional experience they expect from Hertz.”

“In the case of Ms. Johnson, we apologize again for the impact this experience has had on her. This was an unfortunate situation where our rental process was not followed, and she was allowed leave the premises with another company’s vehicle, which should not have happened.”