Aaron's settles allegations of spying on customers

Aaron’s, the Atlanta-based rent-to-own business, has become the latest to settle federal allegations that some of its independently owned franchises spied on customers who rented computers, in some cases collecting photos of minor children and people who were not fully clothed or who were engaged in intimate conduct.

The company agreed that its rental centers no longer will install monitoring software, which can secretly record customer keystrokes, take screenshots of the computer monitors, record voices, take photos, and track the computers' locations.

While monitoring software is banned under the settlement, it allows the company to install location-tracking software on rented property, but only if it first obtains customers’ authorization and lets users know when the software has been activated. An exception is allowed if there is evidence that the property has been stolen.

The settlement, announced on Oct. 22, comes four months after the FTC said that it had reached agreements with seven other rent-to-own companies that it accused of engaging in similar practices. The company that provided the software reached a separate settlement.

Read our investigative report about the high cost of rent-to-own deals from Aaron's, Rent-A-Center, and others.

The FTC said the software was installed by Aaron's independently owned franchises and that while Aaron's chose not to use it in its corporate stores, it collected the data and aided the franchises in installing the software and accessing the information.

The FTC said the software could access computer microphones and webcams, and log customer passwords, user names, Social Security numbers, and other sensitive information gathered from customer keystrokes. It said information also was obtained by using fake software registration windows.

“This conduct placed consumers at risk from the exposure of their personal, financial account access, and medical information. Consumers also were injured by the unwarranted invasion into the peaceful enjoyment of their homes,” the FTC complaint said.

Aaron's and other rent-to-own companies said the purpose of the software was to help them recover computers that had been had stolen, including by customers. The FTC said the information sometimes was used to assist in collection of past-due payments.

The agency said the software went too far, collecting more information than necessary to recover stolen equipment and that the monitoring constituted an unreasonable invasion of the home. The companies were not accused of obtaining customer information for other purposes, such as identity theft.

—Anthony Giorgianni

Copyright © 2005-2013 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.