FTC Stops Computer Rental Franchise From Spying on Customers

Aaron's customers had no idea they were being watched

Just in time for Halloween, the Federal Trade Commission settled one of its creepiest cases yet against Aaron's, an Atlanta-based rent-to-own retailer that helped its franchisees install software on its rental computers that secretly spied on its users.

The software used by the Aaron's franchisees, a program called PC Rental Agent, tracked users' physical location, their login credentials for social media and financial accounts, and even captured pictures of people changing their clothes and other, ahem, private activities. Aaron's not only helped franchisees install and use the software, it even stored the data collected by the software.

Consumers had no idea they were being surreptitiously spied on; neither Aaron's nor its franchisees disclosed the activity, even in the fine print of the rental agreement. In short, Aaron's helped its franchisees completely violate consumers' privacy and placed people's personal, medical and financial information at risk.

"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. 

The settlement against Aaron's is an extension of a case the FTC settled earlier this year against the PC Rental Agent software manufacturer and several rent-to-own stores that secretly monitored people in their homes using it.

In its settlement with the FTC, Aaron's agreed not to use 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 must give clear notice and obtain express consent from rental consumers to install technology that allows tracking the location of the rented computer and it must notify consumers at the time tracking technology is activated. Aaron's also has to destroy any data that was improperly collected and cannot use any of the data it collected.

Aaron's settlement with the FTC may not be the last of its legal woes. Maury Herman, the attorney representing consumers in Byrd v. Aaron's case, called the FTC settlement "promising for consumers. The government's work confirms the troubling findings of our civil litigation. Too few consumers are aware of this type of spyware. We advocate further investigation, better consumer awareness and privacy reforms," he said in a statement.

The commission voted 4-0 in favor of the consent agreement.