PhotoThe Aaron’s furniture rental chain has settled a federal complaint that it played a "direct and vital role" in its franchisees’ use of software on rental computers that secretly monitored consumers, taking webcam pictures of them in their homes.

The disclosures came in the settlement of a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) complaint that said Aaron's franchisees surreptitiously tracked consumers’ locations and captured images through the computers’ webcams – including those of adults engaged in intimate activities.

The software also functioned as a keylogger that captured users’ login credentials for email accounts and financial and social media sites, the FTC said.

The FTC charges echo those leveled in a 2011 class-action lawsuit. A similar suit was filed against Rent-A-Center in September 2013.   

“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. “By enabling their franchisees to use this invasive software, Aaron’s facilitated a violation of many consumers’ privacy.”

Who knew what

Aaron Rents Oct. 23, 2013, 5:29 p.m.
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The complaint alleges that Aaron’s knew about the privacy-invasive features of the software, but nonetheless allowed its franchisees to access and use the software, known as PC Rental Agent.

In addition, Aaron’s stored data collected by the software for its franchisees and also transmitted messages from the software to its franchisees. In addition, Aaron’s provided franchisees with instructions on how to install and use the software.

The software was the subject of related FTC actions earlier this year against the software manufacturer and several rent-to-own stores, including Aaron’s franchisees, that used it. It included a feature called Detective Mode, which, in addition to monitoring keystrokes, capturing screenshots, and activating the computer’s webcam, also presented deceptive “software registration” screens designed to get computer users to provide personal information.

Under the terms of the proposed consent agreement with the FTC, Aaron’s 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.

Must give notice

In addition, Aaron’s will be required to give clear notice and obtain express consent from consumers at the time of rental in order to install technology that allows location tracking of a rented product. For computer rentals, the company will have to give notice to consumers not only when it initially rents the product, but also at the time the tracking technology is activated, unless the product has been reported by the consumer as lost or stolen. The settlement also prohibits Aaron’s from deceptively gathering consumer information.

The agreement will also prevent Aaron’s from using any information it obtained through improper means in connection with the collection of any debt, money or property as part of a rent-to-own transaction. The company must delete or destroy any information it has improperly collected and transmit in an encrypted format any location or tracking data it collects properly.

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