Aaron's Accused of Keylogging, Webcam Captures

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.

  • NuclearShadow
    While if these claims are indeed true then they certainly deserve to be punished for this. Its a shame however when dealing with any business it never amounts to criminal charges and actual prosecution yet if a individual was found doing this same crime they would be facing such.
    Oh well.

    On the other hand I do question the logic behind renting a PC or laptop.
    I certainly wouldn't want to have to return anything that no doubt contains more than enough to do major harm. I am certain if I worked at such a place I could easily steal important personal/banking info when the item is returned and likely even steal identities entirely in some cases.
    If I can do it then certainly others can too so no way in hell would I chance such.
  • hoofhearted
    Doesn't Aaron have the right to do this , since it is their property and they are "renting" it?

    If not, then does that mean employers do not have the right to monitor employees computers?
  • jojesa
    hoofheartedDoesn't Aaron have the right to do this , since it is their property and they are "renting" it?If not, then does that mean employers do not have the right to monitor employees computers?So if you rent an apartment, does that gives the landlord the right to have a hidden camera inside since it is his property?

    The point of installing that type of tracking hardware/software into devices is to disable the rented equipment if not paid on time or stolen.
  • jahmekan
    Does your land lord have a right to spy in the house he is renting you? Aarons are scum bags for doing this and yes, poor people or people with bad credit rent a host of things we take for granted. The prices are high, but they provide a service. If someone stop paying for an item, then make it a criminal case and get them locked up. I hope they lose their shirt and pants in court. Disgusting. BTW: for their sake I hope they didn't snap a picture of a kid in the buff!
  • that's different...employers have the right to monitor employees computers because it is use for work. And u r not suppose to use it to hold any non work related to work. But these rent to own is not for work, its for personal use and should not have any kind of monitoring.
  • waylander
    jojesaSo if you rent an apartment, does that gives the landlord the right to have a hidden camera inside since it is his property?The point of installing that type of tracking hardware/software into devices is to disable the rented equipment if not paid on time or stolen.
    No they don't, when you rent or lease something, that property is legally yours until the rent or lease time ends or you breach the rental/lease contract.

    As with the examples of an apartment, a car would be similar. When you rent a car, do you think the rental company has a right to know what you do as long as you don't damage it?

    As for work computers, that is the property of the company AT ALL TIMES and the employees work on them AT WORK. At no time does the company rent the computer to the employee.
  • @hoofhearted... those are 100% completely different issues.

    Aaron's is not employing the renter, Aaron's cannot be held liable for what the renter does with the computer, and the use is not accessing any of Aaron's networks, or using those networks to access systems on the internet. An employee/employer relationship is a different story, the employer is leagally responcible for what the employee does with on their equipment and and on their network. About 99% of employees sign an acceptible use policy which outlines what they may do on equipment as well as any monitoring policies that are in place.

    Aaron's would have to have the legal language in their contract to even stand a chance in court... and if they do, it won't help them if they are violating State or Federal Law (Laws have priority over contract terms).

    Also Renting is a strange situation based on which laws apply to the rentee and renter... in most cases the rentee is paying for ownership right to the item which means they actually own it unless the contract is broken or otherwise voided. If a payment is missed, that is grounds to break the contract and ownership rights go back to the renter, Aaron's in this case.

    Aaron's is screwed if they did not disclose this in their contract... or if any of the provisions violate State or Federal Law.
  • hellwig
    As others have mentioned, renting is different from simply using a device that belongs to someone else. If nothing else, there are legally binding contracts that are signed, and I doubt those contracts include a provision about being able to use the computer to spy on you. Besides, what happens in a rent-to-own situation as was the case here? These people paid-off the computer and owned it, but Aaron's still had the capability to spy on them, and used that capability.

    A company that gives computers to a employee usually does so with the express purpose that the computer is to be used to perform the duties of employment only. Therefore, the company may block ports, install monitoring software, etc.. all to ensure that the computer is being used under the terms agreed to by the employee.

    However, all Aaron's has to do is say they were monitoring activity to ensure that the renter's weren't using it to download kiddie porn, and the courts will probably side with Aaron's. I remember stories about rental agencies monitoring the movements of rental cars, not that they thought these cars had been stolen, but simply so that they could fine the renters for violating speed limits (the contract states the renter will abide by certain rules). Here's a link: http://news.cnet.com/2100-1040-268747.html It's about 10-years old. I find it sad that the article talks about the need to create new privacy laws before the incoming wave of cell phones and GPS devices hits, and that those laws never came about (if the recent complaints against Apple, Microsoft, and Google tracking cell phones are any indication).
  • jkflipflop98
    jojesaSo if you rent an apartment, does that gives the landlord the right to have a hidden camera inside since it is his property?
    He does if he put it in the fine print of the rental agreement and you signed it anyways.
  • CompTIA_Rep
    Will this stop people from paying %500 above value at Aarons? No.