Sorry mom, kids rack up huge bills with in-app game purchases

Posted by Lydia Leavitt

When you’re deeply entrenched in a game, sometimes it seems like there is a fine line between the virtual world and reality. And with the advent of virtual currency where gamers can buy virtual goods with real-life money, the line seems that much more blurry.

With in-app purchasing become more frequent, parents are becoming aware of the new trend in gaming the hard way as their kids rack up huge bills gaming.

In-app purchases are not relegated only to adult games, but rather they are readily available in kid’s games as well. iPhone games like Smurf’s Village by Capcom Interactive allow gamers to purchase in-app goodies like Smurfberries even though the game is geared towards ages four and up.

Keep in mind the game is free to download in the iTunes store.

The mother of a second-grader who racked up a $1,400 bill on iTunes said, "I thought the app preyed on children. Note that the Smurf app states it is for ages 4-plus."

In-app purchases are considered a new way for publishers to make money off free to download apps, available in both the iTunes store and now the Android market.

Thanks to the new technique, kid’s games like Smurfs’ Village and Tap Zoo have become some of the highest-grossing apps on iPods, iPhones, and iPads.

As these mobile gaming companies rake in the cash, parents are left wondering why a bushel of Smurfberries costs $99 in the game and a bucket of snowflakes costs $19. For the kids, all it takes is simple knowledge of the password to make the pricey purchase.

"Parents need to know that the promotion of games and the delivery mechanism for them are deceptively cheap," said Jim Styer, president of Common Sense Media, a public advocacy group for online content for children.

"But basically people are trying to make money off these apps, which is a huge problem, and only going to get bigger because mobile apps are the new platform for kids."

Although Apple believes the password protection is enough from keeping kids from making the purchases, there are still some loopholes in the process like 15-minute window after changing a password where purchases can still be made.

"The problem is just how easy this can happen," said Brent Goldberg, a software engineer in Riverside, California. He adds that perhaps Apple could make parental controls the default setting when downloading an app.

Other parents are joining the effort like one parent in Denmark who created a Facebook page called, "Ban Credit Card Bait Apps on Apple Appstore" earlier this week.

In response to the bad press, maker of the Smurfs game, Capcom Interactive offered a weak, “We find consumer complaints of children inadvertently purchasing in-app content lamentable” statement.

And the App Store isn’t the only place where in-app purchases are causing parents financial pain. The Xbox gaming system offers similar in-game purchasing options, where it was reported that one kid in England unknowingly spent  £1,082.52 ($1,744.37) while gaming.

To these kids credit, it’s hard to distinguish between what costs real money and what is virtual money, especially in applications that are linked to an iTunes that have a credit card on file. 

As in-app and virtual currencies become a more viable money-making option for gaming companies, better parental controls are clearly needed.

Shame on you gaming industry for taking advantage of poor kids! Tsk tsk.

(Via Washington Post)