Rental Car Company Tracks Customers

N E W   H A V E N, Conn., July 5, 2001 -- Imagine traveling down the interstate with no police in sight — but being charged by your rental car company for speeding. That's what happened to customers of a Connecticut car rental company, and state officials don't like it.

"I feel that my privacy was invaded by being tracked across seven states," says James Turner, who was charged $450 for allegedly speeding three times. "And now I've got a car rental company acting as a state trooper."

Turner's trip from Connecticut to Virginia was tracked by Acme Rent-a-Car of New Haven, where he rented the car. Acme installs a GPS system is every vehicle, and charges $150 every time the system catches a customer speeding.

The system caught Turner three times: at 78 mph in Connecticut, 83 mph in New Jersey, and 78 mph in Virginia. Acme charged his debit card $450, without even telling him.

Turner, a 44-year-old theater box office manager, says he was never given a speeding ticket or even stopped by the police, and that he was going no faster than other cars on the road.

"I was keeping up with traffic, moving with the flow of traffic," he says.

The company says Turner signed a rental agreement that made clear a fee would be charged for speeding, and that it does not matter whether the police caught him or not.

"It's a little different than levying a fine for wrongdoing. It's something that's agreed to by contract," says Max Brunswick, a lawyer for Acme.

The company penalizes customers for speeding in an effort to keep its insurance payments down, according to Brunswick. "We do suffer a lot when people speed, because the accident rate goes way up," he says.

Turner has sued Acme in small claims court, and Connecticut's Consumer Protection Department has filed a complaint accusing Acme of violating the state's fair trading law by failing to warn customers properly about potential fines.

Broader Concerns About GPS

Although national rental car companies like Avis and Hertz do not track speed, thousands of their customers use GPS systems every day. The systems can help customers with directions, unlock cars when keys are lost, or help in an emergency by notifying authorities when an air bag is deployed.

But every driver using a GPS system leaves an electronic footprint, and that has consumer advocates concerned.

"The real issue here is whether the consumer or the individual is going to have any meaningful control over the collection and use of information about where they are," says David Sobel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.