Rent-to-Spy Highlights Need for Diligence

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Aaron’s Inc. a leading franchisee in the rent-to-own retail market has agreed to settle FTC complaints[1] that allowed Aaron’s franchisees to install and use software to spy on customers.

In announcing the proposed settlement, the FTC explained that “Aaron’s franchisees used the software, which surreptitiously tracked consumers’ locations, captured images through the computers’ webcams – including those of adults engaged in intimate activities – and activated keyloggers that captured users’ login credentials for email accounts and financial and social media sites.”

Aaron’s, Inc. is a leading rent-to-own retailer focusing on “residential furniture, consumer electronics, home appliances and accessories with more than 2,000 Company-operated and franchised stores in 48 states and Canada.” Aaron’s reports 1,190 Company-operated Aaron’s Sales and Lease Ownership stores, 717 Aaron’s Sales & Lease Ownership franchised stores, 78 HomeSmart stores, one franchised HomeSmart store, 17 Company-operated RIMCO stores, and six franchised RIMCO stores.

The allegations focus on the franchisees rather than Aaron’s own operations. Nonetheless, the complaint highlights that Aaron’s “allowed its franchisees to access and use the software, known as PC Rental Agent. In addition, Aaron’s stored data collected by the software for its franchisees and also transmitted messages from the software to its franchisees. In addition, Aaron’s provided franchisees with instructions on how to install and use the software.”

A proposed consent agreement with the FTC has been approved 4-0 by the Commission. Aaron’s will be prohibited from using monitoring technology that captures keystrokes or screenshots, or activates the camera or microphone on a consumer’s computer, except to provide technical support requested by the consumer.

Unfortunately the consent agreement still allows Aaron’s to install tracking technology, provided the customer gives consent. Given the history of such abuse, Aaron’s should be prohibited from using tracking software at all. Consent does little or nothing to affect consumer behavior; companies who have violated the public trust should be prohibited from seeking such illusory permission to continue to abuse their customers.

The risks of allowing opt-in consent are highlighted from another provision of the proposed consent decree:

The agreement will also prevent Aaron’s from using any information it obtained through improper means in connection with the collection of any debt, money or property as part of a rent-to-own transaction. The company must delete or destroy any information it has improperly collected and transmit in an encrypted format any location or tracking data it collects properly.

Under the agreement, Aaron’s will also be required to conduct annual monitoring and oversight of its franchisees and hold them to the requirements in the agreement that apply to Aaron’s and its corporate stores, and to terminate the franchise agreements of franchises that do not meet those requirements.

The proposed agreement will be subject to public comment through Nov. 21, 2013.[2] If opt-in consent is insufficient, the perhaps the Commission can be convinced.


[1] The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). The FTC enters complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 2,000 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. The FTC’s website provides free information on a variety of consumer topics. Like the FTC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to press releases for the latest FTC news and resources.

[2] Interested parties can submit written comments electronically or in paper form by following the instructions in the “Invitation To Comment” part of the “Supplementary Information” section. Comments in electronic form should be submitted online by following the instructions on the web-based form. Comments in paper form should be mailed or delivered to: Federal Trade Commission, Office of the Secretary, Room H-113 (Annex D), 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20580.

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