Travelers beware: If you're planning to drive through a region of the country unfamiliar to you — especially if you'll be driving a rental rather than your own vehicle — you need to be very careful, if not downright paranoid, about planning your route in advance to make sure you don't get any expensive surprises from electronic toll collectors (or ETCs).
ETCs, including E-Z Pass, SunPass, FasTrak and others, are intended to be high-tech improvements over traditional tollbooths, which snarl traffic by requiring drivers to come to a complete stop in order to pay a toll.
Many tollbooths nowadays offer two payment options – some traditional lanes where drivers can pay the toll in cash, and ETC lanes for drivers whose cars have electronic transponders from the local toll authority. Those drivers can pass through the ETC lanes without stopping – sometimes without even slowing down – and the ETC will scan the transponder and remove the necessary funds from the driver's account. (In most cases, drivers with transponders are also charged lower tolls than drivers who pay cash.)
But newer ETC points often do away with traditional tollbooths and cash payment options altogether (and if you're not paying attention, you might never even know you passed a toll point until the bill comes due). Instead, all toll charges are collected electronically. If you have a compatible transponder, the toll charge will be deducted from your account; otherwise, the vehicle's license plate will be photographed and a bill mailed to the address it's registered to.
If you drove your own car through the ETC, that means the bill goes directly to you. But if you were driving a rental vehicle, the rental company receives the bill and then charges its cost to your credit or debit card, which it still has on file. If you're lucky, the rental company will only charge you the direct cost of the toll. If you're unlucky, you'll also be charged “administrative costs,” which can be several times higher than the original toll itself.
In 2013, for example, Hertz settled a class-action lawsuit accusing it of overcharging customers who (knowingly or not) used the company's “PlatePass” electronic toll “service” to pay E-Z Pass and other electronic tolls.
How high were those charges? Here's a typical customer complaint we got at the time, this one from Sylvia of Jersey City, N.J.: “When I picked up the car no one mentioned the transponder, nor the possibility that transponder charges that would later be billed to my credit card. I went through two tolls in 5 days worth $1.50 and I was charged $25.75.”
Even if you're not charged exorbitant service fees, you can still receive unexpected toll charges weeks or months after your trip. Danica Jones, one of our colleagues here at ConsumerAffairs, recently learned this the hard way. She took a road trip in late February and early March, and is still getting toll bills for it at the end of May.
Danica rented a Hertz vehicle from Feb. 27 through March 2, to drive from Oklahoma to Colorado and back. When she returned the car, she paid all the rental fees Hertz demanded and figured she was done – until after-the-fact toll charges started showing up on her credit card:
Some tolls showed up after my trip, which was interesting since I paid cash at the toll booths at each stop. A month and a half later, another toll charge popped up. I called, and of course Hertz immediately passed the buck to American Traffic [Solutions, owner of Hertz' PlatePass electronic toll service]. Then, this week [May 18] another charge for $3.45 popped up as a toll fee. They charged to the credit card on my Gold Member account. I have the charges on my bank statement.
To make matters even more confusing, those statements listed the charges as coming from Scottsdale, Arizona, where Danica most assuredly did not drive on her vacation.
Might this be a case where Danica was being charged erroneous toll fees? Things like that happen all the time — and it's not limited to Hertz and the “PlatePass” toll system, either. Last July, for example, Melissa from Illinois wrote us to complain about getting charged for E-Z Pass tolls:
I live in Illinois, have never driven up around or on East Coast. Yet, somehow these guys have gotten hold of my information and are sending me bogus bills? WTH is wrong with this picture? This company is obviously running a big time scam to just rip people off and collect money for their own cause! I hope someone stops them, and soon.
And Shari from New Jersey said: “I rarely go on the turnpike or the Garden State Parkway. I have received several tickets from E-ZPass and I did not even go through E-ZPass. I have witnesses to that. I go through the pay toll next to E-ZPass and when I get a certain distance away from the tolls then E-ZPass snaps a picture of my car. It is set up to rip people off ….”
Similar complaints are easy to find on almost any social media platform, too. Take this complaint, which a disgruntled customer posted to Twitter last month:
That said: though Danica was surprised to keep getting new toll charges on her monthly bank statements, she did note: “I haven't received the service fees some people are complaining about, which is what makes me wonder if this is another issue on its own. I noticed a few others on Twitter mentioning this particular issue without the fee.”
Hertz offers PlatePass® for toll roads!
WHAT IS PLATEPASS®?
It’s an electronic means for paying road tolls. If you choose to use it, you’ll avoid delays at toll lanes and be on your way faster. If you use PlatePass®, the credit card that you used for your rental will automatically be charged for tolls incurred at the Toll Authority's cash toll rate or highest undiscounted toll rate, and applicable service fee, and you’ll be able to bypass long cash lanes. PlatePass®, a division of American Traffic Solutions, administers this service for Hertz.
And Danica assured us that when she rented her car at the end of February, she did not “choose to use” PlatePass.
So what's going on? We contacted Hertz and PlatePass to ask for comment; Hertz responded fairly promptly, but PlatePass never got back to us at all.
Turns out the toll charges on Danica's bank statement were not actually accrued in Scottsdale, Arizona; that's simply where PlatePass is headquartered. Where did those charges actually come from? The Hertz representative gave us some PR boilerplate before discussing the specifics of Danica's case:
…. We think it is important for customers to understand the toll situation on roads they plan to travel, to read the terms and conditions of our PlatePass service, and it can be helpful to retain records of tolls paid, either with cash or using their personal transponders. This assumes that the personal transponders are compatible with the specific toll roads used.
Regarding Ms. Jones’ rental, the toll records indicate that she traveled on the E-470 cashless toll road in Colorado. If she did not use a compatible transponder, we would consider her to have opted in to PlatePass per the rental agreement once she chose to drive on E-470 …. Under those circumstances, and pursuant to the written rental agreement, Ms. Jones would be responsible for the tolls she incurred on E-470 plus related PlatePass administrative fees.
“This is what I’m so blown away by,” Danica said after we gave her the news. “There's nothing that indicated a toll at all. They basically want me to either buy an out of state pass, or get charged out the bum for using theirs.... I saw nothing clear that indicated a toll point.”
Actually, there probably is a “blink-and-you'll-miss-it” sign indicating that E-470 is a cashless electronic toll road; it's just that Danica happened to blink. So did I, a couple years ago, when I made two trips in one month to visit relatives living in the suburbs of Raleigh, North Carolina. On the first trip I drove down an electronic toll road and had no idea it was there — although I did notice the roadside sign on my second trip, and thus knew to expect the bill which arrived in the mail some weeks later.
Fortunately I'd driven my own car, not a rental, so I only had to pay the direct tolls without any additional administrative fees. Even more fortunately, I was in good-enough financial shape that those unexpected toll charges didn't break my budget for the month — let alone incur any penalties for overdrafting a debit card, or maxing out a credit card.
But if you did drive a rental car through an electronic toll collection point, how long afterward do you have to wait until you can definitely say “I've paid all the costs of that trip, and needn't expect any more bills?” And how many more toll charges should Danica expect to receive, from her road trip which ended on the second day of March?
The Hertz representative told us, “Unfortunately, this is a process over which Hertz has no control. Our toll-processing vendor remits toll bills to the customer as soon as possible after we receive information from the tolling authority. Typically, this process takes a couple of weeks, but some outlier cases take longer. Unfortunately, we have no control over the tolling authorities’ processes.”
And drivers have no control over those processes, either.
When you're planning a road trip through unfamiliar territory – especially if you'll be renting a car rather than driving your own – make sure you research the locations of contemporary toll roads in that area, and especially try to determine if any roads you plan to take have ETCs.
If driving through an ETC is unavoidable and you don't have an electronic transponder compatible with that system, check the electronic toll payment policies of whichever company you intend to rent a vehicle from. Do all of this before your trip, so you don't get any expensive surprises after it.