Aarons’s franchisee, other rental firms settle spy charges

The Federal Trade Commission this week settled spying claims against a software firm and several rent-to-own businesses, including two independent franchisees of Atlanta-based Aaron’s Inc., involving allegations of bizarre privacy breaches through rented computers.

The actions follow a lawsuit last year by a Wyoming couple who alleged a Montana-based Aaron’s franchisee collected sensitive data and secretly captured webcam photos of customers using rented laptops.

“An agreement to rent a computer doesn’t give a company license to access consumers’ private emails, bank account information, and medical records, or, even worse, webcam photos of people in the privacy of their own homes,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said in a news release.

The FTC settlement does not include any fines. The action bars software firm DesignerWare LLC, the Montana Aaron’s operator Aspen Way Enterprises and six other rent-to-own franchisees from further spying.

The firms are also banned from using location-tracking programs without consumers’ consent and from “deceptively collecting and disclosing” consumers’ personal information.

DesignerWare is the maker of a program that the rent-to-own franchisees licensed and installed on computers.

A message left for Aspen Way’s attorney was not immediately returned.

Aaron’s and Aspen Way were sued by Crystal and Bryan Byrd of Casper, Wyo., in May 2011 in a case that made headlines nationwide. The suit is still pending.

Aaron’s itself was not part of the FTC matter.

In a statement, Aaron’s General Counsel Elizabeth L. Gibbs said none of Aaron’s 1,183 corporate-owned outlets used the product, and Designerware is not an approved vendor. She said the company has not done business with Aaron’s Inc.

The program, known as PC Rental Agent, allegedly had a function that allowed the merchants access to confidential information on the rented PCs, including user names and passwords, Social Security numbers, bank information and webcam pictures that depicted “children, partially undressed individuals, and intimate activities at home,” the FTC said.

The Byrd’s claimed in their suit a store manager, who mistakenly came their home to repossess a laptop, showed the couple a picture of the husband using the computer at home.

Federal regulators said the rental agencies were charged with illegally collecting confidential information and using that data to try to collect money.

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