FTC Catches PC Rental Stores Spying on Customers

Dennis Faas's picture

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has banned several companies from using spy software on computers they rent out. The banned software not only logged users' keystrokes but unobtrusively accessed the computers' webcams.

PC Rental Agent is the software that appears to have been used in more than 400,000 "leasable" computers around the world, including those rented out by 1,617 rent-to-own stores in North America and Australia. (Source: ftc.gov)

The software is ostensibly designed to track down computers when rental customers disappear with the machines. However, the FTC has gathered evidence that some stores activated the software the moment a customer missed a single payment.

Screenshot Tool Captured Personal Info

Once activated, the software gathers data and relays it to the store every two minutes. This data includes what is typed on the keyboard and what appears on the computer screen.

The FTC noted that some stores had gathered log-in details from users' email and online banking accounts, along with screenshots showing bank statements, personal medical records, and social security details.

The software also took pictures using the computer's webcam. According to the FTC, some of these photos included unsuspecting children, unclothed adults, and couples engaged in intimate activities. (Source: bbc.co.uk)

To make matters worse, the manufacturers of the software sent this data to stores without encrypting it, making it especially vulnerable to hackers.

PC Rental Agent also misled customers by using bogus forms that requested personal information.

On the surface, such forms seemed a way of granting customers access to important software. In fact, they were intended to collect phone numbers, physical addresses, and email addresses to help hunt down customers who disappeared with their rented computers.

Rental Chains, Manufacturer Both In Trouble

Six chains of rental stores have now agreed to an FTC settlement, thereby avoiding criminal prosecution. Under the terms of the settlement, the stores have agreed never again to use the PC Rental Agent software, nor any of the data it gathered.

DesignerWare, which makes the PC Rental Agent software, has agreed to stop supplying it in its current form.

Both the stores and the software manufacturer will be closely monitored by the FTC for the next 20 years. If they break any terms of the agreement, the violation will be treated like a fresh offense.

In the future, PC rental stores can use spy software only for tracking the physical location of a computer. Even then, however, they must make customers aware of this tracking capability before supplying them with the PC.

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