FTC: Rental company's computers spied on 'intimate conduct'

A national rent-to-own chain settled charges Tuesday with the Federal Trade Commission that it illegally installed spying software on rental computers, often without the customers' knowledge.

Employees of the rental chain Aaron's used the software to track the computer's location, log key strokes, capture screen shots and even take pictures using the computer's webcam, according to the complaint.

"These included images of minor children as well as individuals not fully clothed and engaged in intimate conduct," the FTC alleged in court documents.

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The settlement bars Aaron's from using similar spying software on its computers again and requires the company to notify customers if it wants to track the rental computer's location. The agreement requires Aaron's to delete all of the information it obtained through the spying software and to implement an oversight system to ensure its franchises comply with privacy rules.

“At this time, we aren’t able to provide further detail regarding this matter,” Garet Hayes, a spokeswoman for Aaron's, said.

According to the complaint, many Aaron's stores used a software called "PC Rental Agent." The software included a "Detective Mode" that allowed employees to spy on the computer's users. The mode included fake software registration screens that tricked the users into providing their personal information to the company.

Aaron's used the information to collect payments and recover computers if the renters defaulted, the FTC said. 

The agency claimed that "senior Aaron's management" approved the use of the spying software in its franchises, and that customers were rarely informed that the software was installed in their computers. The software was impossible to delete, the FTC said.    

“Consumers have a right to rent computers free of cyberspying and to know when and how they are being tracked by a company,” Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. “By enabling their franchisees to use this invasive software, Aaron’s facilitated a violation of many consumers’ privacy.”

The agency brought charges against rental stores for using the same software last year.