Rent-to-own giant accused of spying on its customers
by: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan, 10-26-13
Have the feeling that someone is watching you and your family?
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says that paranoia might
be justified if your computer came from an Aaron’s rent-to-own store.
The commission’s investigation found that computers rented
from some Aaron’s franchise locations came preloaded with spyware by the
store. This software secretly monitored the customer’s activities on that
machine, even took webcam pictures of them in their homes.
Court papers allege the parent corporation, Aaron’s, Inc. of
Georgia, knew this was being done and assisted the franchisees who did it.
According to the
FTC complaint, the spyware allowed the stores to collect all sorts of
personal data without the customer’s knowledge or consent. It could:
Collect usernames and passwords for email accounts, social
media websites and financial institutions
Capture screenshots of medical information, Social Security
numbers and financial statements
Trick people into providing personal information by
generating fake registration forms
Determine the location of the computer using WiFi hotspots
And here’s the really creepy part. The government’s
“Webcams operating secretly inside computer users’ homes
took photographs of computer users and anyone else within view of the
camera. These included images of minor children as well as individuals not
fully clothed and engaged in intimate conduct.”
Prosecutors said customers could not detect the malicious software or
“Consumers have a right to rent computers free of cyberspying and to know
when and how they are being tracked by a company,” said Jessica Rich,
director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection in a prepared statement.
“By enabling their franchisees to use this invasive software, Aaron’s
facilitated a violation of many consumers’ privacy.”
Aaron’s agreed to settle the federal charges by changing its
business practices – no more spyware – and taking steps to make sure data
already improperly collected is quickly destroyed. It did not admit any
wrongdoing. The company told NBC News it could not comment on the settlement
due to pending private lawsuits.
Why would they do this?
The software, known as PC Rental Agent, was designed to help the franchise
store deal with customers who did not pay their bills. The software allowed
the store to disable the computer remotely, and court papers state
franchisees could use the “illegally gathered data” to assist in collecting
past-due payments and recovering computers after a default.
The FTC complaint alleges corporate headquarters knew about
the privacy-invasive features of PC Rental Agent, but allowed its
franchisees to use it. Aaron’s even provided franchise stores with
instructions on how to install and use the software and stored the collected
data for them.
Company-owned stores did not use PC Rental Agent.
What happens now?
Under the terms of the proposed
consent agreement, Aaron’s will no longer deceptively gather customer
It will be prohibited from using monitoring technology that
captures keystrokes or screenshots, or activates the camera or microphone on
a consumer’s computer – except to provide technical support requested by the
The company agreed to give clear notice and obtain express
consent from customers at the time in order to install technology that
allows location tracking of a rented product.
For computers with built-in tracking technology, Aaron’s
will tell customers about this when they rent the product, but also when
that tracking technology is activated, unless the product has been reported
as lost or stolen.
Aaron’s has also agreed not to use any information it
obtained through improper means to collect any debt, money or property as
part of a rent-to-own transaction.
The company must also delete or destroy any information it
has improperly collected.
The public has 30 days to comment on the proposed
Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on
or visit The ConsumerMan website.