Computer rental companies spying on customers


You get to the stage where you think you’ve just about heard it all and then along comes something like this! What follows is the sad but true story of PC rental companies, a software called PC Rental Agent, and a serious invasion of consumer privacy.

PC Rental Agent is a remote monitoring application, developed and marketed by a company called DesignerWare, which is primarily intended for tracking, disabling or remotely wiping rented computers – obviously contrived for those cases where customers default on their rental agreement. However, according to a US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) statement, PC Rental Agent has been utilized by rental companies for far more sinister forms of surveillance… using a feature called ‘Detective Mode’ to collect private and confidential information such as; usernames and passwords to access email accounts and social media sites, medical records, Social Security Numbers and bank account numbers, and in some cases even taking webcam pictures of people in their homes.

Secretly Installed Software on Rented Computers Collected Information, Took Pictures of Consumers in Their Homes, Tracked Consumers’ Locations

Seven rent-to-own companies and a software design firm have agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that they spied on consumers using computers that consumers rented from them, capturing screenshots of confidential and personal information, logging their computer keystrokes, and in some cases taking webcam pictures of people in their homes, all without notice to, or consent from, the consumers.

According to reports, PC Rental Agent is installed on 420,000 systems worldwide through 1617 rent-to-own stores based across the United States, Canada and Australia. The FTC had this to say regarding the nefarious activities… “Consumers are harmed by DesignerWare’s unwarranted invasion into their homes and lives and its capture of the private details of individual and family life, including, for example, images of visitors, children, family interactions, partially undressed individuals, and couples engaged in intimate activities.”

So what punitive measures has the FTC settlement imposed? The US consumer protection agency has banned DesignerWare and the seven rent-to-own stores named in the complaint from utilizing monitoring software, such as Detective Mode, and from using deception to gather information on consumers. It also prohibits the use of geo-location tracking without consumer consent and notice. DesignerWare is also barred from providing others with the means to commit illegal acts and will be monitored by the FTC for compliance for the next 20 years.

Well, I guess that is better than nothing but… is it just me or does that appear a little incongruous when compared to the heavy fines and jail sentences faced by individuals who infringe on copyrights for example? I wonder if the victims of this gross invasion of privacy would be satisfied that justice has been done.


Me, I don’t believe the terms of the settlement go anywhere near far enough. What do you think?

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About the Author

Jim Hillier

Jim is the resident freeware aficionado at DCT. A computer veteran with 30+ years experience who first started writing about computers and tech back in the days when freeware was actually free. His first computer was a TRS-80 in the 1980s, he progressed through the Commodore series of computers before moving to PCs in the 1990s. Now retired (aka an old geezer), Jim retains his passion for all things tech and still enjoys building and repairing computers for a select clientele... as well as writing for DCT, of course.

6 Comments

  1. Interesting little story there Jim, and I agree with you that a settlement is no where near enough of a penalty, compared to the paranoia these people are going to be going through.

  2. Jim, what’s scary is that people still don’t buy items (period). We’re decades away from the lay-away plans of the previous century. And how many people don’t know that score credit is over inflated (20% and more).

    Today, electronic items are dirt cheap (not like they were 20 to 30 years ago). They are constantly going down, a luxury everyone can afford. Yes the latest units have the highest price tags, but that’s because it’s a fad, that’s all. There is nothing wrong with last years model and it’s very low cost wise, Mindblower!

  3. I agree with Mindblower, I’m not sure if I ever owned anything that wasn’t last years model or older. Some of the best products were produced in the days when care was put into the making. Like Minblower stated, electronics are dirt cheap. Why pay for something on a payment plan plus the mosat likely extra cost of insurance, for something that may break down a month after it’s paid off. The tracking of deadbeat customers maybe understandable, but the spying and recording of users very private actions is taking one giant leap over the line of decency. Down right implorable and illegal. Lets hope this is an example to other that try and cross that line.

  4. I think some type of compensation is due to those who rented from these companies. I for 1 have rented and bought out 3 PCs from one of those places and I am pissed about it.

  5. The likely reason that there was no jail time or monetary compensation is that this was a settlement – not a trial. The FTC may have chosen to settle this way because they may have had little usable evidence that the software was actually utilized illegally. Just having the capability is not the same as using it. Another reason is that they would have had to make a separate case against each rental company and gather evidence and witnesses for each. It would have taken years and millions in legal expenses to do that. The rental companies and software developer likely agreed to settle to “buy peace” and put this and the attendant publicity behind them.

    As for the comment about rentals and lay-away, Wal-Mart and other retailers have brought back lay-away for the holiday shopping season over the last few years and it’s been quite successful. Law-away has the advantage of not actually creating a debt – it’s only a reservation of the merchandise which remains with the seller till the buyer has finished paying for it at which time he takes delivery. Renting to own is usually a very expensive way to buy something but for those living check to check it may be the only option they have. Sometimes rentals are for just temporary needs where the intent is to return the equipment after it serves its purpose. Rental companies charge high rates because of the high risk in getting paid. Particularly with a portable item like a PC it can easily disappear and if they do get it back oftentimes it’s been trashed beyond repair. That doesn’t justify using all the functions of PC Rental Agent but some sort of geotracking seems legit. Almost any new car can be geotracked if there is a repo order out on it.

    • Hi Bruce – You are correct of course, but the terms of the settlement could have (perhaps should have) included criminal proceedings. Maybe the reasons you put forward are why this didn’t occur. However, seeing how the FTC has made all the details and substance of its complaints very public, I would imagine they would have sufficient evidence to support their claims… otherwise they would be well and truly leaving themselves open to a libel suit.

      Cheers… Jim