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 complaint states:

“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 uninstall it.

“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 information.

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 consumer.

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 settlement.

Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter or visit The ConsumerMan website.

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