NORMAN — Renting a fancy new computer instead of buying it outright may not seem like such a great idea now that some of the country’s major rent-to-own companies have been busted for spying on their customers.
In a bizarre case from the “who thought that was a good idea” department, the Federal Trade Commission recently settled charges with seven rent-to-own companies, including franchisees of Aaron’s, ColorTyme, and Premier Rental, that the companies illegally used special software installed on rented computers to take “pictures of children, individuals not fully clothed, and couples engaged in sexual activities.”
According to the FTC, the companies were using remote-control spying software made by now-defunct DesignerWare LLC to help them find lost or “missing” computers and track down deadbeat renters who were behind on their rental agreements. Such practices are common when renting expensive and easy-to-steal items like laptop computers, and are also used by schools, large corporations and government agencies when they hand out laptop computers to their students and employees.
The rental companies crossed the line, though, when they used the spying software in “Detective Mode,” which allowed them “to log the keystrokes of the computer user, take screen shots of the computer user’s activities on the computer, and photograph anyone within view of the computer’s webcam. Detective Mode secretly gathers this information and transmits it to DesignerWare, who then transmits it to the rent-to-own store from which the computer was rented, unbeknownst to the individual using the computer,” the FTC said.
As if that weren’t enough, the software also presented fake Microsoft Windows, Internet Explorer, Microsoft Office, and Yahoo Messenger registration screens that tricked consumers into providing their personal contact information. Additional information harvested by the rental stores included “private and confidential details about computer users, such as user names and passwords for email accounts, social media websites, and financial institutions; Social Security numbers; medical records; private emails to doctors and bank and credit card statements.” As of August 2011, the software had been used by about 1,617 rent-to-own stores in the United States, Canada, and Australia, and installed on 420,000 computers.
“An agreement to rent a computer doesn’t give a company license to access consumers’ private emails, bank account information, and medical records, or, even worse, webcam photos of people in the privacy of their own homes,” said Jon Leibowitz, Chairman of the FTC. “The FTC orders today will put an end to their cyber spying.”
Many believe the FTC orders amount to nothing more than a slap on the wrist, however. No fines, and nobody really gets in trouble; the companies simply have to promise not to be bad anymore, and keep records for the next 20 years proving how well they are behaving. How effective the FTC orders will be in preventing rental companies from spying on their customers is anyone’s guess. Here’s one solution: it’s my experience that a piece of black electrician’s tape does a pretty good job of disabling a built-in webcam; no software required.
Based in Norman, OK, Dave Moore has been an independent computer service technician since 1984. He also teaches computer security workshops to public and private organizations. He can be reached at (405)919-9901 or www.davemoorecomputers.com.