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Laptop renters secretly spied on by hidden software

Laptop computer. File Photo.

Laptop computer. File Photo.

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Updated: October 29, 2012 6:44AM

Spyware secretly installed on the rented laptop computers captured everything from screenshots of private information to where the users were as they checked their emails or surfed the Internet .

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and the Federal Trade Commission reached an agreement with a local rent-to-own company that leased the spyware-equipped laptop computers.

Apparently the company was using the spy software to track down customers who had fallen behind on their payments, Madigan’s office said this week, but she calls the intrusion on privacy “offensive.”

Under the agreement with the state and FTC, Lake Bluff-based Watershed Development Corp., which operates several lease-to-own stores in the northern suburbs and beyond, must halt spying on customers.

“There is no justification for spying on customers. These tactics are offensive invasions of personal privacy,” Madigan said in a prepared statement.

She alleges the spyware violates state’s consumer fraud act.

Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the FTC, talked about the case — which stretched beyond Illinois’ boarders — and how nationally the spyware ended up capturing some intimate and private moments in people’s lives.

“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,” he said in a prepared statement.

The FTC noted in a press release that webcam-equipped computers had captured “pictures of children, partially undressed individuals, and intimate activities at home.”

Watershed, a franchisee of Aaron’s Inc., couldn’t be reached for comment late Wednesday.

Madigan said the stores, which include Illinois locations in Belvidere, Crystal Lake, DeKalb, Freeport, McHenry, Mundelein and Sterling, lease furniture and computers.

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