INDIANAPOLIS — Drew Seaser and his family were heading to Mexico to celebrate his daughter’s high school graduation. But after months of planning and anticipation, they never made it past the Denver International Airport.
“Thought it was going to be a good time, but it didn’t end up that way,” he said. “The whole thing was pretty awful.”
As Seaser and his family got ready to board their flight to Cabo San Lucas, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent asked to see his identification.
“So we handed him my passport. He [said], ‘Mr Seaser, are you aware there is a warrant for your arrest out of Georgia?’ I was like, ‘No, I’ve never been to Georgia,’” Seaser recalled. “I couldn’t believe it. I thought someone was joking.”
It was no joke.
Sheriff’s deputies arrested the Colorado father in front of his wife and children in the middle of the airport and took him to the Denver County jail.
“I still just couldn’t believe it. I told anybody who’d listen that I’d never been to Georgia and this was all a misunderstanding, but they were just doing their jobs based on the information they had," Seaser said.
The information police had was a stolen vehicle report filed by Hertz. The rental car company claimed Seaser rented a 2020 Ford Expedition from a Hertz lot in Woodstock, Ga. The theft report included Seaser’s correct name and address, but the driver’s license number on the complaint was not his.
“They got the wrong guy,” Seaser told 13 Investigates. “If Hertz had done even the slightest bit of due diligence, it wouldn’t have happened.”
Turns out, Hertz rented an SUV to someone who had stolen Seaser’s identity and presented fake identification at the rental car counter. And when that identity thief failed to bring the vehicle back, Hertz made an innocent man pay the price.
A night in jail and a ruined vacation were just the beginning.
“I’ve had trouble sleeping. I’ve had more panic attacks. I get nervous every time I see a police officer. I’m scared to go to the airport,” explained the real estate appraiser, who had never before had any run-ins with law enforcement. “It’s ruined a lot of aspects of my life.”
Drew Seaser is not alone.
Hundreds of horror stories
All across the country, hundreds of people claim they were falsely arrested after Hertz filed a police report involving a stolen car. Some of these people were held at gunpoint. Some spent weeks or even months in jail. But none of them stole a car, according to their attorney.
“Hertz doubles down and tries to claim that the information in the police report is accurate when it's the information that Hertz provides, which is false,” explained Francis Alexander Malofiy, who represents 330 people who are now suing Hertz. They all claim they were falsely arrested due to a “stolen” Hertz rental car they did not steal.
Malofiy has documented some of his clients’ ordeals on a website he created to highlight the extent of Hertz’s problem. The stories include:
- Burnside rented a Hertz car in Georgia, then paid for an extension. Despite having a receipt showing he paid for all of it, Burnside claims Hertz reported the car stolen, erased his extensions, backdated the due date of his rental and told police he had not extended or paid. After 7 months in jail, Burnside accepted a plea deal to get out. He later fought to have the guilty plea withdrawn and prosecutors dropped all charges.
- Arvary says he was arrested, spent four days in jail and lost his job as a health care executive after Hertz falsely reported that he had stolen a rental car in Florida. He says an investigation by Wells Fargo for unauthorized charges on Arvary’s credit card showed Hertz actually rented the car to someone else who stole Arvary’s identity and credit card information.
- Danforth, a Hertz Gold member, rented a car in Massachusetts and extended the rental agreement. But she says after Hertz confused her for another Erin Danforth in Michigan, the company reported the rental car stolen and she was falsely arrested with her 13-year-old son in the back seat of the rental car. Danforth says she was jailed and her son was taken into protective custody.
- Ayoub rented a truck in Delaware for his business and paid for an extension to the rental contract. He says Hertz deleted all of the extension information and filed a false police report, claiming the truck was stolen. Ayoub says despite showing police his contract and payment information, he was still arrested on a warrant for auto theft and spent 3-and-a-half months in jail following the arrest.
- Doucette, a Hertz President’s Club VIP member who has rented from the company dozens of times, said Hertz reported his rental car stolen in Utah despite proof that he had paid $3,946.44 for the extended rental. He claims he was falsely arrested and jailed for 14 days.
- Higgs, a mother and a nurse, says she spent 171 days in jail, suffered a miscarriage, and lost both her home and her job after Hertz falsely reported that she stole a rental car in Florida.
Earlier this year, while defending itself in federal court against claims of filing false police reports, Hertz admitted it files on average 3,365 police reports every year alleging a customer stole one of its rental cars. Hertz tried to keep the number confidential before a judge ordered the company to release the information.
How many of those vehicles were actually stolen is unclear, but Malofiy says Hertz paperwork errors, an outdated vehicle tracking system and employee negligence are to blame for many of the vehicles that Hertz reported stolen. And he says the consequences for innocent people have been catastrophic.
“These are horror stories. People are losing their jobs, their home, custody of their kids. And when you’re thrown in jail – sometimes for a day, sometimes for months – and suffering physical, financial, mental and emotion abuse because they’re putting profits ahead of human life, someone has to take accountability and responsibility for that,” Malofiy told 13News from his Philadelphia office. “It’s a systemic nationwide problem. These cases are not going away. There’s more cases coming forward, and what people are realizing is they’re not alone.”
Why a Hertz rental was reported stolen in Indiana
While some of the cases involve obvious identity theft and mistaken identity that Hertz failed to recognize prior to filing a police report, other cases are more complicated.
Kevin Barkal was arrested in 2020 after renting a car from a Hertz agent in northwest Indiana.
“I didn’t steal a car. I’m not a thief. I’m not a criminal,” the retired doctor told 13News. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Barkal says he arranged the car rental through his State Farm Insurance agent when his personal vehicle was involved in an accident.
“I was never told by State Farm how long I was expected to have the car. The arrangement was you’ll have the car until the repairs are done,” Barkal said, adding that he was never asked to sign a rental contract that outlined a return date.
A manager at the Hertz lot in Highland, Ind. confirmed that Barkal’s rented 2019 Chevy Impala was coordinated through the insurance company and that he never signed a rental contract. But that rental car manager, Jeffrey Williams, insists Barkal’s rental car was more than a month overdue. Williams told 13News that both he and his staff made multiple attempts to contact Barkal to bring the Impala back to the lot.
“I personally went to the house and left a note on the mailbox, at the front door, the back door. And I put a note on the car to please contact Hertz immediately. [He] never did,” Williams explained. “He took the car and didn’t bring it back. It’s that simple.”
So on Jan. 10, 2020 – twelve weeks after Barkal got his rental car -- Williams reported the vehicle as stolen.
But was it?
Police records show Hertz activated the OnStar GPS system on the car. It showed the vehicle was “pinging at [Barkal’s] home” one mile from the rental car lot. And Williams reiterated he knew exactly where the car was: in Barkal’s driveway every time he drove by his house.
“Three different times I left notes on the front door, back door, on the car,” the car rental manager repeated several times while talking with 13News.
So if Hertz knew where the car was, why did Williams call police instead of simply calling a tow truck?
“Because I was instructed to by Hertz, so we do what Hertz tells us to do,” Williams told 13 Investigates. “By the time you call the tow truck, he may get in the car and leave.”
A month later, when a Munster, Ind., police officer pulled Barkal over for changing lanes without using a turn signal, he also discovered the Chevy Impala had been reported stolen.
The car was impounded and returned to Hertz.
But police let Barkal go without any charges due to a “lack of information” and conflicting information (incorrect date of birth and driver’s license number) that Hertz provided to police.
A Highland Police Department detective wrote in his original investigation notes, “Due to the ongoing issue with Hertz’s company policy of not allowing employees to properly identify customers before renting them a vehicle, this case will be closed out. If the vehicle is located, it can simply be towed at Hertz’s expense and removed from [the National Crime Information Center stolen vehicle database].”
“I thought the matter was closed,” Barkal recalls.
Case not closed, arrest warrant issued
Despite getting its car back, Hertz did not back down on its claim that a retired Indiana doctor stole its vehicle. The company asked Highland Police to continue its investigation and to pursue criminal charges.
Nearly nine months after the rental car was returned to Hertz, Kevin Barkal was again stopped by Munster police. This time, based upon Hertz’s stolen car report, Barkal faced an arrest warrant that accused him of two felonies: conversion (stealing a vehicle by failing to return it) and synthetic identifying information (creating a fake identity).
“He arrested me, handcuffed me, searched me, and I was thrown in the back of the police car and taken to county jail,” Barkal said. “It was very scary. I’ve never been in jail before.”
His attorney says the criminal charges were based on false information that Hertz provided to police and should never have been filed.
“Even if the car was returned late, it doesn’t make it OK for Hertz to convert a civil payment dispute into a criminal matter,” Malofiy said. “We don’t have debtor’s prisons in this country. But Hertz deliberately would rather use the police as a taxpayer-funded repo service and throw people in jail instead of hiring its own people to retrieve a car. They shift the burden to taxpayers, to police and prosecutors so it doesn’t cost them a dime. No other company in the United States files unverified false police reports against their very own customers like this.”
After a day in jail, months of legal bills and a year of court hearings, Barkal faced a trial before a Lake County judge that could have brought years of jail time. Instead, the retired doctor agreed to participate in a pre-trial diversion program and, in exchange, the Lake County prosecutor’s office agreed to drop all charges, which have now been expunged from his record.
“Hertz files the charges, knowing people are scared once they are caught up in the legal system and will be forced to back down. They could just admit they made a mistake and withdraw the police report, but instead they double down. It’s shameful conduct,” Malofiy said.
Those who’ve been arrested are now speaking out, demanding that Hertz stop filing false police reports.
“It’s ruining innocent lives,” Seaser said.
“I don’t know how they undo the damage they’ve done,” Barkal added. “This is outrageous, and it needs to stop.”
Hertz offers some settlements but few answers
Hertz declined to meet with 13News to discuss accusations of false police reports, and a company spokeswoman would not answer any of 13 Investigates’ questions about the cases involving Seaser or Barkal.
The nation’s second-largest rental car company recently did extend settlement offers to about three dozen customers who claim they were falsely arrested – Seaser and Barkal are not among them – and Hertz’s spokeswoman sent 13News the following statement:
“Hertz cares deeply about our customers, and we successfully provide rental vehicles for tens of millions of satisfied travelers each year. We remain steadfast in our commitment to do right by our customers and defend the company's interests against those that intend harm. We are reviewing and considering each claim brought against Hertz on its individual merits. In furtherance of our stated commitment to resolve situations in which customers have been harmed by our actions, we have begun extending settlement offers to dozens of claimants and will continue to do so on a case-by-case basis.”
She also said the number of false arrest complaints represents a tiny fraction of Hertz’s annual car rentals.
Malofiy believes the handful of settlement offers extended to date falls far short of a more comprehensive settlement that is needed to properly compensate his clients for the financial and emotional distress caused by Hertz. Most of those clients, the attorney said, have not even been offered an apology.
“I haven’t heard anything from Hertz,” Seaser told 13News. “I clearly did nothing wrong and they know I did nothing wrong. I’ve never even rented a car from Hertz before. It’s pretty baffling they wouldn’t want to make things right. I just want Hertz to take accountability for what they did.”
Earlier this year, facing increased scrutiny by the media and mounting pressure by members of Congress, new Hertz CEO Stephen Scherr said his company would address the problem. USA Today reported Scherr told several news outlets that the company "will do right where our customers have been negatively affected," and that "we have changed our policies to avoid the possibility of this happening."
And during an interview with Bloomberg TV, Scherr announced, “We put in policies now that will mitigate if not remove the risk of that happening again.”
Asked to explain the policy changes that Hertz has implemented to prevent more false police reports and arrests, the company’s spokeswoman told 13News “We’re not going to go into any specifics at this time.”