May 4, 2011

Lawsuit Claims Rental Chain Spied On Customers

A national rent-to-own company has installed software on its computers that allows it to track the keystrokes, screenshots and webcam images of customers as they use the devices, according to a federal lawsuit filed on Tuesday on behalf of a Wyoming couple.

In the class action suit filed in a U.S. District Court in Erie, Pennsylvania, Brian and Crystal Byrd said that Aaron's Inc. obtained remote photographs of them, spied on their email, and tracked their online activities through a leased laptop computer equipped with hidden spying devices.

The Byrd's said they learned about the PC Rental Agent "device and/or software" inside their rented computer when an Aaron's Inc. store manager came to their home last December to reclaim the computer.

The manager had tried to recover the computer because he mistakenly believed the couple had not paid for it, the Byrds said.

Brian Byrd said the manager showed him a picture of Byrd using the computer "” taken by the computer's webcam.  The image was taken with the assistance of spying software, which the lawsuit claims is made by North East, Pa.-based Designerware LLC and is installed on all Aaron's rental computers.

"It feels like we were pretty much invaded, like somebody else was in our house," Byrd, 26, told The Associated Press (AP) on Monday.

"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," he said.

According to the lawsuit, the store manager told the Byrds "that he was not supposed to disclose that Aaron's had the photograph."

The store manager "was just trying to throw his weight around and get an easy repossession," Byrd said.

"They never explained why they were taking the webcam photos," he added.

"The just walked in trying to be big shots."

According to its website, Atlanta, GA-based Aaron's leases everything from electronics to furniture, and has more than 1,500 stores in the United States and Canada.

Byrd and his wife Crystal, 24, said they made two monthly payments of $156 for the laptop computer before deciding in October that it made sense to make a final $900 payment to own the computer outright.

Although the couple had a signed receipt, the Byrds later learned that an employee who took their final cash payment was suspected of stealing customer payments.  This, they say, is what led the Casper store manager to believe the couple had not paid for the computer, and to come to their home to reclaim it.

The Byrds said that while they had their own desktop computer, they rented the laptop because Crystal needed it to study radiography at Casper College.  That was the reason the couple called police rather than give the computer back, Mr. Byrd said.

"I feel violated," Crystal Byrd told AP.

"It's scary that people can come into your home and you not know that they're watching you."

"Crystal gets online before she gets a shower and checks her grades," said Mr. Byrd.

"Who knows? They could print that stuff off there and take it home with them."

"I've got a 5-year-old boy who runs around all day and sometimes he gets out of the tub running around for 20, 30 seconds while we're on the computer. What if they took a picture of that? I wouldn't want that kind of garbage floating around out there," he said.

According to the lawsuit, PC Rental Agent includes components soldered into a computer's motherboard, or otherwise physically attached to a computer's electronics, meaning it cannot be uninstalled and can only be deactivated with a wand.

Casper, WY-based John Robinson, the Byrds' attorney, said Aaron's officials have told police they install the device on all their rental computers.

"The allegations concerning the policy were given to us on information released from the police, that's what they told us," he told the AP.

The computer is currently in police evidence, said Robinson, who added that he does not believe any criminal charges have resulted from the matter.

The Byrds have asked the court to declare their case a class action, and are seeking unspecified damages and attorneys' fees under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. 

The Byrds are also asking the court to prohibit Aaron's from installing and using the spying products and the sale of those products by DesignerWare.

In a statement, however, Aaron's denied that any of its corporate stores have used the component, or done business with the company that produces it.

"Aaron's respects its customers' privacy and has not authorized any of its corporate stores to install software that can activate a customer's webcam, capture screenshots or track keystrokes," the company said in its statement.

The computer in question in the lawsuit was leased from an independently owned and operated Aaron's franchisee, the company added.


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