San Francisco sues Hertz over bridge toll charges

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SAN FRANCISCO (KTVU) -- City Attorney Dennis Herrera filed a lawsuit Thursday alleging that rental car giant Hertz Corp. and a business partner swindled San Francisco customers out of millions of dollars in hidden fees to cover bridge tolls.

The suit, which also names American Traffic Solutions, says Hertz rental car drivers could be paying over five times the $7.50 amount that motorists pay if they cross the Golden Gate Bridge without a FasTrak toll tag.

"I was being charged $5 a day whether or not I went over the bridge," Ruth Newman of Louisville, Kentucky told KTVU by phone.

The 68-year-old tourist embarked on a week-long trip up the Northern California coast with a friend in 2014. She said that although she used the Golden Gate Bridge just once, a charge for $31.75 appeared on her credit card statement a few months later.

"I was outraged," she said. "I mean I was very angry because I felt it was absolute deception."

She reported the incident to the Better Business Bureau only to find out later that she was charged what Hertz described as a daily convenience fee.

"I do think that these service fees are a profit center for them," said Deputy City Attorney Matthew Goldberg. "We're sort of constantly monitoring complaint databases and consumer complaints to government officials and so these practices have been on our radar screen for a while, and we investigated and identified Hertz."

The City Attorney's office said Hertz, which also operates Thrifty, Dollar and Firefly car rentals, uses a product called Plate Pass, which is run by American Traffic Solutions.

Plate Pass is supposed to be optional for customers and allow them to traverse Bay Area bridges without incurring additional toll charges.

Herrera said rental car customers are forced to use the Plate Pass product, however, and later wind up with unexpected credit card charges.

"We think that they have earned millions of dollars in fees from consumers here in San Francisco over the last four years," Goldberg said.

Hertz customers contacted by KTVU said rental agents never mentioned anything to them about Plate Pass or bridge tolls. However, on page 4 of a 6-page rental agreement, the document says customers can opt out of Plate Pass and pay cash.

"This is a particularly deceptive and misleading practice because the Golden Gate Bridge converted to cashless several years ago so there's no option to avoid the service at the time you cross the bridge," Goldberg said.

A Hertz spokesperson said they could not comment on the legal action.

"We cannot comment on pending litigation," the spokesperson said.

"I feel a little bit cheated," said Francois Dorr, who is visiting from France and rented a Hertz car. "I wasn't [even] aware there was a toll actually."

The lawsuit's aim is to stop Hertz and American Traffic Solutions from assessing the fee.

The companies could be hit with a charge of $2,500 per violation, which would translate to millions of dollars they would have to pay out to former customers.

For Bay Area visitors, you can get around Golden Gate Bridge tolls by using the Bridge District's one-time payment system.

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By KTVU reporter Tara Moriarty.