Q: On August 21, 2002, I rented a Mazda Protege from Budget Rent a Car at the Halifax airport. When I arrived at the rental counter, an agent asked me if I needed car insurance. I said I didn’t. She asked if I accept responsibility for any damage to the car. I explained that my credit card covers it.

The agent then printed the contract and indicated in a swift way, “Sign here, here, and initial there.” I signed, assuming that the contract would reflect that I did not want insurance. Eighteen days later, when I returned to the airport, I expected to pay $660 CDN for the car, the price clearly stated on the reservation contract.

Instead, the bill came to $1,400 CDN.

Budget charged me a per-diem rate that was not included in my original $660. It also billed me $24 a day for insurance.

I asked the company to look into it, and after an “investigation” (which entailed them finding a copy of my contract for $1,400), they told me to pay up. There was no letter of explanation, just a smudged photocopy of the contract.

This experience is like an old-fashioned bait-and-switch con game, an enterprise I thought was banished from commercial transactions years ago. Can you help me get my money back?

– Laura LoGerfo

A: I can’t blame you for being upset about this. After all, you said you didn’t want insurance. Then Budget more than doubled your car rental bill and told you to fork over the money without so much as asking for your side of the story.

It all kind of reminds me of the David Mamet movie The Spanish Prisoner, in which the protagonist signs what he believes is a country club membership form. It turns out to be an application for political asylum.

Yes, you were duped, although I’m not sure it was intentional. According to Jeff Brookhouser, Budget Rent a Car of Canada’s executive vice president, the franchise you visited consistently scores in the 90th percentile with respect to service levels. You were also dealing with a long-term rental agent with “a record of solid performance.”

What happened? Probably just a misunderstanding. “I am at a loss to fully understand what transpired,” Brookhouser told me. That makes two of us.

Although Budget has a contract on file in which you agree to assume the insurance charges, the company said it will credit you $560.28 CDN. That represents a full refund of the insurance charges and additional fees.

Next time, read before you sign. Even if there are people standing in line behind you. Even if you’re late for an appointment. It’s the only way to prevent this from happening again. If your case had ended up in court, Budget would have won–you signed the contract.

If you see a surprise charge on your car rental bill, don’t leave the lot without trying to resolve the problem. Car rental companies try to make it easy for you to return your vehicle and then leave, but this is one of those times when you should stick around and talk with a manager. Car rental franchisees like happy and, if possible, repeat customers. They’d do just about anything to keep you from getting the parent company, or your credit card dispute department, involved.