With more than 1,500 stores in the United States and Canada, popular rent-to-own retailer Aaron's Inc may be getting ready to go down in flames thanks to a class action lawsuit filed in federal court in Pittsburgh. The lawsuit claims that the chain secretly monitors computer customers' electronic communications by tracking keystrokes, taking snapshots of the screen, and even capturing video of users while sitting in front of the webcam.
This is a direct violation of federal privacy and technology laws.
According to the lawsuit, Brian and Crystal Byrd, of Casper, Wyoming discovered that Arron's has secretly collected their data after the store manager paid a visit to their home on December 22, 2010 to repossess a laptop. The device was actually paid for, but incorrectly entered into the system and shown as unpaid. But to prove that the default clients were still using the device, the Aaron's manager showed the family an unauthorized web-camera image of Brian Byrd using the computer at home. He also added he was not supposed to disclose that Aaron's had the photograph.
"It feels like we were pretty much invaded, like somebody else was in our house," Byrd told The Associated Press in an exclusive telephone interview, the day before the suit was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Erie. "It's a weird feeling, I can't really describe it. I had to sit down for a minute after he showed me that picture."
Brian Byrd called the police, and eventually it was discovered that the last payment was stolen by an Aaron's employee and entered it into the computer incorrectly. But a subsequent investigation by local law enforcement also discovered that the rent-to-own retailer was in fact collecting unauthorized information... more so than they originally thought during their confrontation with the manager.
"It has been the practice and policy of the Aaron's Defendants to conceal from their customers their ability to remotely access, intercept and monitor customers' private, personal electronic communications, information, screen shots, keystrokes or images captured on webcams and to further disclose to consumers exactly the kinds of private information and images that can be and were routinely collected, transmitted and stored," the lawsuit reads.
Aaron's supposedly use a hardware and/or software solution called PC Rental Agent made by North East, Pa.-based Designerware LLC, and is installed on all Aaron's rental computers by either soldering directly to the motherboard or added somewhere else on the laptop. This product-- marketed especially to rent-to-own retailers-- is meant to remotely disable the device when the end-user defaults on payments. Once the money is received, the laptop is unlocked by remote or with the wave of a wand.
The legal team behind the Byrd's lawsuit is currently seeking to have the lawsuit certified as a class action to obtain injunction relief and damages for all customers of the Aaron's defendants who reside in the United States, who have purchased, leased, rented or rented to own, Aaron's computers and people whose electronic communications and/or images were intercepted, accessed, monitored and/or transmitted by the defendants without the customer's authorization.
A local Aaron's representative denied any such hardware/software solution installed on desktops, laptops and netbooks, saying that the devices come straight out of the box and onto the shelf. As a hands-on witness, that is indeed true, as the computers appear to be shipped straight from the factories, tightly packaged as if purchased directly from the presses-- they even have the newly-manufactured smell.
The representative also added that the only remote software Aaron's uses is on smartphones to disable the service when customers default on payments. But as for PCs and laptops, he said that they've had plenty of clients skip town without paying off the devices and there's nothing they can do to reclaim their property.
That said, it's possible that the Wyoming incident is localized, and may not be practiced throughout the Aaron's chain. Then again, the PC Rental Agent solution could be installed at a regional warehouse before it's shipped to the local stores, and the local Aaron's representative may have been denying everything X-Files style. As Agent Fox Mulder states, Trust No One.