Not everyone can afford to plunk down hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars on a laptop. And not everyone has to: There are rent-to-own computers, offered by rent-to-own outlets alongside refrigerators, televisions, and furniture. But unlike the couch or the mattress or the kitchen appliances, some of these laptops are loaded with remote kill switches that would disable the computer if renters were late with their payments.
In order to ensure recovery, the software company DesignerWare, LLC, added a little something extra to some of these computers—“Detective Mode,” an add-on to “PC Rental Agent,” which was, in 2011, already being used by 1,617 rent-to-own stores on 420,000 computers around in the world.
Detective Mode was spyware that captured keystrokes, screenshots, and even webcam pictures of unsuspecting users via the rented computers. On top of that, the laptops displayed fake software registration pop-ups that couldn’t be dismissed until users typed in their address, phone number, and e-mail—information that the store would use for collections later, if the renter fell behind.
In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission settled with seven companies over their undisclosed use of the Detective Mode software. “If the rent-to-own store wants more information, it can cause Detective Mode to record data every two minutes until prompted to stop doing so,” said the FTC complaint. “… In numerous instances, Detective Mode webcam activations have taken pictures of children, individuals not fully clothed, and couples engaged in sexual activities.”