Furniture company accused of webcam-spying on customers

No-uninstall remote-monitor kept eye on customers, who respond to the attention with a lawsuit

A couple from Wyoming are suing Atlanta-based furniture- and PC-rental chain Aaron's, Inc. for invasion of privacy after allegedly discovering it had installed keyloggers and web-cam software that allowed it to spy on customers.

The lawsuit, filed today in U.S. District Court in Erie, Pa., charges that Aaron's installed an application called PC Rental Agent on the PC it sold to Brian and Crystal Byrd of Caspar, Wyo., and used it to monitor what they did with the computer.

Byrd told the Associated Press he only discovered he was being monitored when a local Aaron's store manager came to try to repossess the computer after mistakenly listing the Byrds as having fallen behind in their payments.

The two bought the computer in August, made two monthly payments of $156 apiece, then paid off the $900 they still owed in one lump sum in October.

Believing they hadn't made the final payment, the Casper store manager came to their home Dec. 22, and showed them a picture of Brian Byrd using the computer that had been taken remotely using the computer's webcam.

"It feels like we were pretty much invaded, like somebody else was in our house," Byrd told The Associated Press "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."

PC Rental Agent ("Protect your RTO Computers; Stop Skips from getting away with it) is a remote-monitoring agent that allows PC rental companies to monitor all the activity on a rented PC, including taking pictures using the webcam.

It also allows rental companies to lock down a rented PC so the customers have to call the rental company to get it unlocked, or shut down automatically on a schedule set by the rental company if the PC has no Internet access.

Shutting the software off or removing it requires a two-factor login, using a username/password the customer doesn't have, and a dongle, CD, electronic wand or other physical device only the rental company has.

It's inexpensive to install and use on rental computers; I'm sure it more than pays for itself. Unless someone finds out you're using it and decides, correctly, that you're an unethical scumbag who believes your right to drill a hole into the private lives of your customers to protect a trivial investment is greater than all of their Constitutional rights put together.

Aaron's is a $500 million, 1,800-store rental chain with a seriously hard-assed attitude toward its customers – the kind of company you'd deal with only if you had absolutely no other choice.

How's that for a marketing tagline?

The Byrds are a 26- and 24-year old couple who paid about three times too much for their computer, and found out it was being controlled remotely by representatives of a company who were themselves confused about who owes them what and what the proper thing is to do about it.

Their attorney told the AP that Aaron's executives admitted installing the monitoring software on all their rental computers.

Violating the Electronic Communications Privacy Act allows for a penalty of $10,000 plus $100 per day for every violation.

If you're one of the weasels at Aaron's who decided to install and use the software, here's how you fix it: settle the case right now by giving the Byrds every cent of whatever damages they ask for.

The bad publicity is worth a lot more than that in red ink.

Then phone every customer you've ever done the same thing to and offer them the same deal, plus a personal apology from the founders. Don't go to their houses to do it in person, though. I'm sure they've had enough of you in there already.

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