2002 11 03 NYT State Wants to Stop Rental-Car Big Brother – New York Times


State Wants to Stop Rental-Car Big Brother

IN the summer of 2001, complaints began flooding in to the State Department of Consumer Protection regarding Acme Rent-A-Car in New Haven. The company was using global positioning systems installed in their rental cars to track the speeds customers were driving.

If a person exceeded the speed limit for more than two minutes, their credit or debit card was billed $150 each time. One customer was charged an extra $450 in a single trip and didn’t find out until he opened his credit-card bill weeks later.

Acme received about $13,000 from customers before action was taken, according to the Department of Consumer Protection.

The department pursued the complaints, which numbered about 40, and issued an order in February prohibiting the company from unauthorized use of the systems. Acme, which warned customers of the fees in the rental contract, has appealed the decision.

Now, James Fleming, the consumer protection commissioner, is taking the issue a step further. Late last month, he stood with New York Assemblyman Michael Spano, a Republican of Yonkers, at a press conference in Yonkers to back Mr. Spano’s proposed legislation outlawing use of the systems to track the speed and location of rental-car users. Although New York has not had any examples of industry misuse of global positioning systems, Mr. Spano said he believed car-rental companies will use the technology if permitted to do so.

In the text of the proposed legislation, Mr. Spano wrote, ”This act is an invasion of privacy, a classic case of ‘big brother,’ a travesty of justice.”

Connecticut’s case, one of the first in which a consumer protection department has taken action against companies using global positioning systems to impose fines, motivated Mr. Spano’s legislation and that of his brother, Nicholas Spano, also a Republican of Yonkers. The legislation sponsored by Nicholas Spano passed in the New York State Senate earlier this year. The bill sponsored by Michael Spano will now head to the State Assembly.

The New York legislation will benefit Connecticut consumers, Mr. Fleming said, particularly those who live in Fairfield County and often rent cars at New York City airports. He doesn’t want to stop there, though. He has his own idea for Connecticut legislation addressing the issue.

”I’d like to provide this benefit to our consumers here,” Mr. Fleming said. ”We’re putting together a package that has not yet been approved for submission, but I think we’ll get the go-ahead from the governor’s office for a bill to go to the Legislature next year. Right now, I think since we issued the cease and desist order against Acme, any company who wants to use global positioning is waiting to see what the courts say.”

Paul Kozlowski, the president of Acme, said last week that he was also waiting for the court.

”I really don’t want to comment,” he said. ”I’m waiting for the court to make its decision.”

The Department of Consumer Protection is not interested in stopping companies from using global positioning systems at all, Mr. Fleming said. The systems can be useful in tracking stolen cars.

But some companies were using them not only to monitor speed, but to make sure customers were staying in an agreed-upon geographic area. Systems also may be rigged to enable a company to disable a rented car from afar.


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