In-App Purchases and The Smurfberry Affair

Not all is fun and games in the App Store(s aapl), especially in some freemium titles, where children are racking up credit card charges via in-app purchases of various game add-ons. One little girl cost mom and dad $1,400 in virtual “Smurfberries,” and it wasn’t even one of Gargamel’s plots. Apple is reportedly looking in to changing the 15-minute window that allowed this to happen, but in my opinion, they can’t move fast enough to address this serious loophole in App Store policy.

I don’t blame the kids for this problem. In-game money equating to real world currency is a relatively recent phenomenon. Those gold coins you get in the Mario series do not add up to real dollars and cents. Kids don’t always have the skill to understand the intricacies of commerce and fantasy. The U.S. government recognizes this vulnerability and has laws in place to protect against it, such as The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and the Children’s Television Act. Content providers must generally take measures to make sure parental permission is given for access to websites, and that clear distinctions are made between programming and advertising. The same kind of care should be taken with regards to the App Store.

I also don’t blame the parents. Apps that could have material not suited for children display clear warnings during purchase.  But purchasing a game geared towards children that could give your wallet an unexpected hit via in-app purchase don’t require such a warning. Parents initially type in their password to download a game, but may not be aware of the existence of the 15-minute window in which Apple (wrongfully, in my opinion) allows additional purchases. How many of us have been in a situation where we need to entertain a child and quickly buy an app and then hand over the phone for some simple babysitting?

Game developers definitely deserve some of the blame. You don’t need to be Brainy Smurf to figure out that a $99.00 in-app purchase on a game geared towards children is a recipe for trouble. However, developers are in the business of making money, and they’ll push the limits when they can, so long as it doesn’t incur too much ill will among the buying public.

Apple takes 30% of the revenue from an in-app purchase, but deserves at least 70% of the blame for this ongoing problem. The company needs to eliminate completely the grace period after entering one’s password. I can specify how long until my screen locks on both Mac and iOS devices. However, on iOS, Apple gives no warning when you buy an app or make an in-app purchase that your account will remain open to other purchases for the next several minutes without requiring re-authentication, and provides no way to change or disable this window. This is a recipe for trouble.

Apple also needs to reconsider its ratings and warning system. Smurfs’ Village is only rated 4+, for example.  Any game that allows in-app purchases should have a specific warning to help parents know that the game may not be not child-friendly due to potential accidental in-app purchases. While Capcom has put a warning in the description of the app, other programs have not done so. That should be required in the App Store and displayed under other content warnings.

Finally, Apple really needs to allow user accounts or profiles like it does in OS X. While iPhones tend to be used by only one individual, iPads and iPod touches are often shared among family members. I should be able to hand my iPad or iPhone to a youngster and have a full suite of parental controls and lockouts available by simply logging out of my profile and logging into a kid-friendly one.

Until such changes are made, here are a few tips to prevent in-app sticker shock:

  1. Set up a separate Apple ID for a child for which you might purchase apps and don’t associate your credit card with this account. Use either a gift card or Apple’s iTunes Store allowance to fund the account. This will limit the spending potential for accidental purchases.
  2. Turn off in-app purchases globally by going to Settings>General>Restrictions. Once you set a passcode to enable restrictions, you can turn off in-app purchasing.
  3. After making a purchase, sign out of your iTunes account by going to Settings>Store>Sign Out.

While Apple appears to be sympathetic to parents who have been victimized by in-app purchases, often offering refunds to those who complain, the fundamental flaw still exists. Until Apple provides a more satisfactory solution, it’s up to parents to remain vigilant and follow the steps outlined above.

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