Avis Car Rental Screw-Up Results in a $2,300 Foreign Transaction Fee
TPG Contributor (and pro photographer) Patrick T. Fallon usually shares tips on exploring destinations, redeeming miles, gaining elite status and improving your own photography while traveling — today's story is a little different. Between TPG posts, follow his photo work and travels on Instagram. (All photos by the author.)
When my friend Pinar Istek used her credit card to pay for a 300 Turkish Lira (~$100USD) deposit at an Avis rental car branch in Ankara, Turkey over winter break, she knew that it might take a couple extra days to receive a refund. About a week later on January 7, Istek checked her statement for the University Federal Credit Union Visa Platinum Credit Card and found a statement credit for almost a quarter million dollars — 692,542 TL or $232,225.26 USD at the day’s exchange rate.
The most she's ever had withdrawn from her accounts in the past is $650 for rent — yet seemingly no red flags were raised when $232,225.26 was credited to her account from the Turkish division of Avis - Avis Türkiye Otokoç Otomotiv.
"I'm a graduate student that lives on [a teaching assistant] income, so this is a ridiculous amount of money for me," said Istek, a University of Texas PhD student studying journalism.
"I just couldn’t believe it. I took a screenshot and sent it to my boyfriend and my sister — they were shocked too. I called the bank (in the USA) immediately after that. They said that the rental company made a huge mistake and to call the rental car company immediately," Istek said. The credit union gave her the impression that this had nothing to do with them, and that the mistake was on Avis' end.
Due to time differences between the USA and Turkey, she had to wait for the next day to call the Avis office.
“First they panicked because of the amount and then it sounded like they didn’t know what to do. They wanted me to send a screenshot of the amount — they said they would forward this situation to their center in Istanbul,” Istek said.
Istek received a call from someone she presumed to be from the Avis Istanbul center that claimed to have checked with their accounting staff and denied that the funds ever went through — shifting the burden back on her and the US bank, University Federal Credit Union of Austin, Texas. "They didn’t want to claim the money or take any responsibility for it," she said.
"I waited again for the daytime in the USA [and] I called the bank in the States again. I basically spent last Friday waiting on hold being transferred from department to department," Istek said. From Avis to University Federal Credit Union — which she believes eventually transferred her to Visa support.
"[University Federal Credit Union Bank] didn’t want to file any dispute charges because of how large the amount was. The bank told me to talk to Avis again and to keep them posted."
The weekend passed and on January 12, Istek checked again — this time to see that 692,242 TL had been charged to her card by Avis — now $230,110.93 at a different exchange rate than before.
But a foreign transaction fee of $2,301.11 also posted.
Istek is still in Turkey and is planning on visiting the rental car location with her computer to show them what has happened. However, it does not seem like there is much else the branch could do. Technically, they corrected the amount in Turkish Lira — though refunds and charges were processed at different exchange rates and without compensating for fees.
Which raises the question: If Istek had a foreign transaction fee-free card, would she have been entitled to keep the positive charge in exchange rates? She would have gained $2,114.33 due to foreign exchange rate changes — only on paper at the moment — but the $2,301.11 foreign transaction fee has left her at least -$291.17 in the hole. The original 300 TL deposit was processed as a purchase, not just an authorization or hold.
While this is an extreme example, it could have been much worse. Her credit union card only charged a 1% foreign transaction fee (FTF) — FTFs of 2%-4% are not uncommon, but luckily they're easy to avoid with the right card. At its worst, that would have been more than $9,000. Would a cardholder in this situation technically be on the hook for that amount?
Istek's hoping that she'll be able to visit with her bank branch when she returns to the US. The bank has since told her on the phone to dispute the charges including the FTF, which were processed by Visa.
Any time a transaction error occurs — especially of such large value — it's important to report it as quickly as possible in order to avoid penalties and possible legal repercussions. It's still a mystery why Istek's transactions were not flagged automatically.
"I'm worried I'm going to get in trouble — I haven't been able to sleep much since this happened. My mom too; we are all nervous," she said.
Istek plans to return to the US this weekend and is concerned that US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or another government agency will have questions for her, given the large financial transactions and current events in the Middle East. This week, 10 tourists were killed in an attack blamed on ISIS, and large financial transactions often raise suspicions. Already, travelers to Turkey are often subject to extensive SSSS screening by the TSA, as TPG found out himself; his "scarlet letter" took almost two months to remove.
Instead of enjoying her winter break with family and working on her PhD, Istek has spent the last week on hold in different time zones. She wants someone from either Avis, Visa or her credit union to take responsibility and clear up the fees and make things right. As of Thursday, Avis in Turkey still refuses to take responsibility for the screw-up — shifting responsibility back to the credit union and Visa.
"I just want this to be over and get this resolved. I am so over the stress and frustration and having to wait on the phone. I’m a PhD student — I should be spending my time on research, not this."
What’s your credit card refund or foreign transaction fee horror story? Please share below in the comments.