Pennsylvania Couple Discovers Spyware, Sues Rental Firm

By JOE MANDAK | May 4, 2011

A major furniture rental chain has software on its computers that lets it track the keystrokes, screenshots and even webcam images of customers while they use the devices at home, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a Wyoming couple who said they learned about the PC Rental Agent “device and/or software” inside the computer they rented last year when an Aaron’s Inc. store manager in Casper came to their home on Dec. 22.

The manager tried to repossess the computer because he mistakenly believed the couple hadn’t finished paying for it, the couple said. Brian Byrd, 26, said the manager showed him a picture of Byrd using the computer – taken by the computer’s webcam. The image was shot with the help of spying software, which the lawsuit contends 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 told The Associated Press in an exclusive telephone interview, the day before the suit was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Erie. “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.”

The lawsuit says the store manager told the Byrds “that he was not supposed to disclose that Aaron’s had the photograph.” Byrd said he believes the store manager “was just trying to throw his weight around and get an easy repossession.”

“They never explained why they were” taking the webcam photos, Byrd said. “The just walked in trying to be big shots.”

David Katz, an attorney at Atlanta-based Aaron’s, said he was not familiar with the lawsuit, but was hoping to issue a response after reviewing a copy. The company’s website says it has more than 1,500 stores in the United States and Canada

Tim Kelly, who said he is one of the owners of Designerware, said he wasn’t aware of the suit and declined to comment.

Byrd and his 24-year-old wife, Crystal, said they paid two monthly installments of $156 for the laptop computer before deciding it made financial sense to make a final $900 payment to own the computer outright. That was in October.

The couple had a signed receipt but later learned an employee who took their final cash payment was suspected of stealing customer payments, which is why the store manager believed they hadn’t paid for the computer and came to repossess it.

The couple had their own desktop computer but rented the laptop because Crystal Byrd needed it to study radiography at Casper College, they said. That’s why Brian Bird says they called police rather than give the computer back.

“I feel violated,” Crystal Byrd said. “It’s scary that people can come into your home and you not know that they’re watching you.”

PC Rental Agent includes components soldered into the computer’s motherboard or otherwise physically attached to the PC’s electronics, the lawsuit said. It therefore cannot be uninstalled and can only be deactivated using a wand, the suit said.

The couple’s attorney, John Robinson, of Casper, 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,” said Robinson, who does not believe any criminal charges have resulted.

The computer is currently in police evidence, Robinson said. Michael Blonigen, the district attorney in Natrona County, Wyo., did not immediately return a call about the progress of that investigation.

The Byrds want 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 privacy act allows for a penalty of $10,000 or $100 per day per violation, plus punitive damages and other costs, the lawsuit said.

“Crystal gets online before she gets a shower and checks her grades,” Brian Bird said. “Who knows? They could print that stuff off there and take it home with them.”

He added: “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.”

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