By Associated Press - Friday, February 7, 2014

ERIE, Pa. (AP) - A federal magistrate in Pennsylvania has recommended against class-action status for a lawsuit filed over spyware installed on computers leased from furniture renter Aaron’s Inc.

If accepted by a federal judge, the recommendation would mean the lawsuit would be reduced to the original claim filed by Crystal and Brian Byrd, of Casper, Wyo.

The couple’s attorneys have since claimed hundreds of customers were victimized as Aaron’s allegedly collected 185,000 emails containing sensitive information - including pictures of nude children and people having sex - from customers. The Byrds sued Atlanta-based Aaron’s in Pennsylvania because the company that made the software, DesignerWare, is from North East, Pa.

Attorneys for both sides have until Feb. 14 to object to U.S. Magistrate Susan Paradise Baxter’s Jan. 31 recommendation, which was first reported Friday by the Erie Times-News. After that, a federal judge can accept, reject or modify the recommendations.

Frederick Longer, a Philadelphia attorney helping to represent the Byrds, said he intends to appeal if the magistrate’s recommendation is accepted by the court.

“The fight for consumers who were spied up on by Aaron’s Inc. and its franchise stores is far from over,” Longer said. “We intend to appeal the court’s decision, which does show that Aaron’s secretly invaded customers’ privacy without their knowledge or consent.”

Aaron’s spokesman, Garet Hayes, said the company has a policy of not commenting on litigation.

In recommending the class-action be scuttled, Baxter found the Byrds’ attorneys failed to clearly identify a class of people who might have been victimized by the software. Lumping together households that rented computers equipped with the spyware wasn’t specific enough, she said.

“Plaintiffs do not provide an administratively feasible way to determine whose information was surreptitiously gathered,” Baxter found.

Aaron’s has previously denied wrongdoing, claiming the spyware was installed so the company could remotely disable rental computers when customers either didn’t return the devices or didn’t keep up on payments.

But the Byrds, buttressed by information that grew out of a Federal Trade Commission settlement in 2012, contend the spyware also secretly sent emails back to Aaron’s corporate computers that contained pictures secretly taken by the rental computers’ webcams, or other sensitive customer information including Social Security numbers, social media and email passwords, and even keystrokes.

The FTC settlement has barred DesignerWare, the Aaron’s franchise that operated the Wyoming store, and six other businesses that operated rental stores from deceptively collecting information and using any location-tracking software without customer consent.

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