Rental cars steal your info & torture others with it
The FTC warns people to erase their personal data from rental cars when they turn them in.
It was a rental car road trip, with Grandma in the back seat and her teen daughter up front. But it was the other unexpected passenger that made Leia lose her mind.
He had rented the car before her, and now was riding with her—digitally—on the way from Medford to San Francisco for a relative’s wedding. Not only did he leave his personal information behind in the rental car computer system, but also his taste in music.
“His sat-radio preferences kept over-riding the seek function. I was stuck with only country music stations for long stretches,” said Leia (not her real name). “Every time I turned the car off it would revert back to his stuff! Aaarrrg!”
You may chuckle, but this story illustrates why the Federal Trade Commission is warning drivers and passengers to delete their personal information when they turn in a rental car, and why they’re asking rental car companies to take more steps to protect you.
Rental cars may be sucking out your information through our phone, and keeping it in their system for other drivers to see, use, and in some cases, suffer from.
Getting to know Spencer—too much
During the trip, Grandma needed to charge her phone. They plugged it in to the USB port on the car console.
“The car then offered to dial recently-called numbers—Spencer’s call log, not Grandma’s,” Leia said. “You could scroll through and see the phone numbers.”
Leia said she found data from three previous renters, including calls and texting logs.
You may not want the people to know who you’re contacting, for example, if you’re looking for a new job, trying to swing a business deal, or—hopefully not—cheating on your significant other.
The FTC warned that the problem can go deeper. The car may also know and keep places you entered in GPS or went to in the car, like your house or office.
“With mobile technologies in rental cars, consumers’ personal information can stay with the car long after the consumer has returned it,” wrote Lisa Weintraub Schifferle with the FTC. “Call and message logs, contacts, and text messages can provide a wealth of data about a mobile phone’s user. Navigation histories can reveal where a consumer lives or works.”
“Unless you delete that data before you return the car, other people may view it, including future renters and rental car employees or even hackers,” she said.
Connected rental cars can keep your info long after you are done with the rental, according to the FTC.
The connected rental car may seem convenient, but it also brought Leia to a point of loathing.
Spencer had apparently set the radio to only scan country music stations, and there was no manual in the car to fix the problem. After hitting enough buttons, the family could tune in their own music, but only until the car stopped. Then Spencer was back.
After a point, they named the radio after the former driver.
“C’mon Spencer, knock it off.”
“See if Spencer can find a weather station.”
“Turn Spencer up, I like this song.”
But Spencer had other ideas as well.
Technology gone awry
The family had stopped to gas up.
“After refueling, Spencer belted out something obnoxiously twangy,” Leia said. “The kid was still petting the gas station’s concrete dinosaur mascot, so I started pushing buttons. I managed to up the volume instead.”
“That’s when I realized that grandma’s phone, sitting unattended and charging on the dash, was calling 911,” she said.
“Kid arrived back to the car as Spencer’s screen showed the call, and they picked up just in time to hear grandma yelling ‘WOULD ONE OF YOU KILL SPENCER, ALREADY?! SHUT HIM UP!”
As Leia found out later, the Ford Fusion manual said that the unmarked console buttons either adjust the radio setting or call 911, depending on the model.
Did 911 hear Grandma urging bloodshed? More on what happened next a little bit later in our story.
Stop the bleeding
You can learn from Leia’s disastrous overly-connected road trip.
“Do not plug your phone or other device into a rental car USB port,” she said. “Use an old-school cigarette lighter charger if you wish to charge something.”
“There are ‘USB condoms,’ but I haven’t tested any to see if they protect as advertised or not,” she added. “Something to consider.”
The FTC agrees—stay away from the USB port if possible.
“In some cases, the USB connection may transfer data automatically,” Weintraub Schifferle said.
The FTC recommends you do not plug your phone directly into a rental car’s USB port.
Just say, ‘No’
You should also check to see what you are giving the car access to if you plug in.
You may get a screen on the infotainment system giving you a choice.
“Grant access only to the information you think is necessary – if you just want to play music, for example, you don’t need to okay access to your contacts,” said Weintraub Schifferle.
Also, kill your data—not Spencer—when you leave.
The FTC said you should go to the infotainment system’s settings menu and look for paired devices. Find your device, and follow the instructions to delete it.
Before you call 911 by mistake…
Leia recommended you read the rental car’s manual.
“If you intend to use any of the connected features, see that you have the manual for it. If not provided by the rental agency—hit and miss—grab one from the manufacture’s website. They usually have them easy to find,” she said.
“Know what the car is going to do and have access to BEFORE you give it evidence against you.”
Rental car companies
The FTC wants rental car companies to do more to help, and provided these tips for businesses:
—Disable any automatic settings that synchronize or save data from a paired device.
—Establish policies and procedures to delete consumer data from the infotainment system when each car is returned.
—Train employees to follow these procedures, and monitor employees to be sure the procedures are followed.
—Make deleting data another step, like cleaning the interior, to prepare the car for the next rental.
—Prominently warn consumers about the types of data that may be downloaded from devices and stored on the car’s infotainment system. Then, provide clear instructions on how they can delete the information.
Back to the gas station in Northern California, where Grandma’s phone was calling 911, and Grandma was loudly demanding Spencer’s death.
“Kid dove for the console buttons, I dove for the phone and yanked it out of the port while frantically ending the call,” Leia said.
It was decision time, she said. They were in danger of arriving too late for wedding festivities.
“If Grandma got pulled in for questioning by the police, she’d miss her granddaughter’s wedding rehearsal dinner,” she said. “Couldn’t risk that. If we bolt out of town immediately, they wouldn’t catch up to us until later.”
“I rate the Ford Fusion five stars for getaway car. It has surprisingly wonderful power and handling, and from the back seat, grandma didn’t notice a thing. Very smooth,” Leia said. “My, we made good time.”
Spencer—still alive—made the journey, too. And may be waiting for you, on your next road trip out of town.