New Haven, Conn. — James Turner was driving a rental car on a business trip to Virginia last October when he had a problem using his bank card.
His bank told him the car rental company, Acme Rent-A-Car, had withdrawn $450 from his account in a 24-hour period.
That's when Turner found out that Acme is using global-positioning satellites to catch customers speeding and is automatically charging fines to their ATM cards.
Acme claimed to have caught Turner speeding in Westport, Conn., on the New Jersey Turnpike, and somewhere in Virginia.
"They told me that I was actually tracked by satellite across seven states," the 44-year-old theater box office manager said.
Turner is suing in small claims court, and the state Consumer Protection Department filed a complaint Monday accusing Acme of violating Connecticut's Unfair Trade Practices Act by failing to warn customers properly about potential fines. Acme has only one outlet, in New Haven.
Bernadette Keyes, Turner's lawyer, said a main problem with Acme's policy is that customers can't contest the charges.
"Typically when you get arrested for speeding, you see the cop and you look down at your speedometer," she said. "In this case it's three days later. How do you know?"
While other car rental companies use GPS to track stolen cars or give directions, experts said they have not heard of any other companies tracking speed and levying fines. Six national car rental companies contacted by The Associated Press said they do not track customers' speed.
Connecticut Atty. Gen. Richard Blumenthal, whose office investigated Acme, called the practice "abusive and illegal." The state said it found 26 customers who were forced to pay speeding penalties.
Max Brunswick, a lawyer for Acme, insisted that the practice is legal and is spelled out in customers' contracts: The car will be tracked and the driver will be fined $150 for each speeding violation. He said Monday that the company is amenable to offering refunds and plans to more clearly define the policy in customer contracts.
Hertz and Avis said they use GPS for providing directions.
"We don't have an interest in surveying what our customers are doing," said Rich Broome, Hertz vice president for corporate affairs.
Thrifty Car Rental also equips some cars with GPS devices, but to track vehicles that customers fail to return, spokesman Chris Payne said.
Payne said: "I cannot imagine that this is something that would catch on with rental car companies. Consumers are left with the impression that Big Brother is watching."