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Kevin Cullen

You haul, and you may get ripped off as well

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / September 4, 2011

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This is the time of year when all the wonderful college students flock back to our fine metropolis, when the streets of Back Bay and the Fenway are clogged with so many vans, moving trucks, and Volvo station wagons that Boston becomes, for all intents and purposes, Mogadishu-on-the-Charles.

If you think it’s bad trying to negotiate your way down Bay State Road, that’s nothing compared with standing in the middle of a U-Haul office, and that’s where Joe Welch found himself the other day.

Welch is a fine fellow, lives in Hingham, and two weeks ago went onto the U-Haul website to reserve a 14-foot truck to move his son Brendan, a Northeastern University student, and John Alvarez, Brendan’s roommate, into a new apartment near the Fens.

Joe Welch reserved the truck for 24 hours and reconfirmed the reservation, twice, by phone. But when he went to pick up the truck in Weymouth, he was told he could only have it for 12 hours.

Now this was, Welch explained to the nice young man behind the counter, preposterous because a) he had reserved the truck for 24 hours, and b) he couldn’t even move his kid into the apartment until well after that 12 hours would expire.

It was at this point that Joe Welch was informed he would be responsible for paying $50 for each half-hour he exceeded the 12-hour rental. Joe Welch works with numbers and can add very quickly and by his calculations that would mean he would be on the hook for an extra $1,200, or almost 10 times the original rental agreement.

And as he stood there, in the U-Haul office on Route 3A on the sunny South Shore, it occurred to Joe Welch that when guys wearing leather jackets in the North End do something like this it goes by another name.

He made repeated attempts to talk to the manager, a guy named Tom Hamilton, but it became apparent that he would sooner get an audience with the pope.

Welch called the U-Haul national call center and spoke to a nice woman in Florida named Jane who looked at all the paperwork.

“You had it booked for 24 hours, but they altered your reservation,’’ Jane told him. “Didn’t they tell you?’’

Um, no. They didn’t, not until he arrived to pick up the truck, when he was in no position to make alternative plans.

“Honey,’’ Jane told him, “if I could help you, I would.’’

And he believed her, but that and a dime will get you . . . Well, actually, a dime won’t get you anything these days.

Now, you might say, this is an isolated case, a rare misunderstanding. But according to no less an authoritative source than U-Haul’s own website, what happened to Joe Welch happened to many others. It’s not rare. It’s routine.

On Friday, I counted a half-dozen complaints similar to Welch’s. It was hard to get an accurate number of such complaints, because some of them were deleted from the website as the day wore on.

Joe Welch believes U-Haul purposely overbooks its inventory, creating a situation where college kids and their families, working on strict, defined schedules, can do nothing but pay the additional fees and penalties.

“U-Haul isn’t making its money charging $19.95 a day and 89 cents a mile,’’ Welch said. “They are whacking people with these fees . . . I sat there for a half-hour on Wednesday, and everybody who came in to drop off or pick up a truck got hit for extra charges.’’

Welch finally got the aforementioned Tom Hamilton on the phone and said Hamilton kept telling him, “You signed the contract.’’

I talked to Hamilton yesterday, and he disputed Welch’s version of events, insisting Welch did not confirm his reservation before pickup. He denied U-Haul deliberately overbooks its inventory. He said you can’t actually reserve anything online; you can only request a time, he said.

“Everything is subject to availability,’’ he said. “It says it right on the website.’’

Actually, it says “your equipment reservation is guaranteed.’’ And it boasts about its “reservation guarantee,’’ that if your truck isn’t waiting for you when you reserved it, U-Haul will pay you $50.

But the 50 bucks doesn’t come out of U-Haul’s pockets. That’s charged to customers who don’t return their trucks on time.

Joe Welch got his bill on Friday and included was a $50 “inconvenience charge.’’

If Tom Hamilton holds his breath waiting for Joe Welch to pay that 50 bucks, he is going to be very blue in the face.

The other day, long after he was supposed to return the rental truck, Welch was parked on Gainsborough Street, as his son and hundreds of other kids moved in. Cars and trucks were doubled-parked, people rushing everywhere.

A college kid driving an identical U-Haul truck inched his way down Gainsborough, and Welch stepped out to fold his mirrors in so the kid could get by.

Welch made eye contact with the kid and said, “Crazy, isn’t it?’’

“You wanna know what crazy is?’’ the kid replied, according to Welch. “U-Haul just told me I was supposed to have this truck back hours ago, even though I reserved it for the rest of the day. I can’t even get into my place until 2 o’clock this afternoon. Now that’s crazy.’’

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeCullen.