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Software let rent-to-own companies spy on customers

September 25, 2012|By Deborah Netburn

Be careful of what you do in front of a rent-to-own computer. You never know who may be watching.

On Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission announced it had reached a settlement with seven rent-to-own companies that spied on their customers through the very computers they rented to them.

The FTC said that each of the seven companies — including Aspen Way Enterprises, J.A.G. Rents and C.A.L.M. Ventures — installed a piece of software called PC Rental Agent that enabled them to see keystroke logs, take screen shots and even take pictures using the computer's webcam, all without their customers’ knowledge.

PC Rental Agent, designed by the now-bankrupt software firm DesignerWare, was marketed to rent-to-own companies as a way to keep track of a rented computer's physical location and disable it remotely through a kill switch if the renter began skipping payments.

The FTC had no problem with those functions.

But Tracy Thorleifson, an FTC attorney at its office in Seattle, said that while the rent-to-own stores are entitled to be paid for their property … they are not entitled to spy on people.”

What the FTC deemed unlawful was an add-on program called Detective Mode, which at the rental company’s command could gather data from a renter’s computer and transmit it to DesignerWare's servers every two minutes for 60 minutes, or until the rent-to-own store told it to stop.

Detective Mode also enabled the rent-to-own stores to make a renter's computer display a fake software registration window that asked the user to enter a name, address and phone number. The window could not be closed until the information had been entered.

The FTC's complaint also noted that photos taken by Detective Mode's webcam included pictures of children, individuals not fully clothed and couples engaged in sexual activities.

The FTC said PC Rental Agent was licensed by 1,617 rent-to-own stores in the United States, Canada and Australia.As of August 2011, the agency said it had been installed in 420,000 computers worldwide.

Thorleifson said no money would be collected as part of the settlement with the FTC, but the firms, without admitting wrongdoing, agreed to deactivate Detective Mode and stop spying on its renters.

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