In-app purchases can be expensive lessons for kids
Games with "in-app" purchases can surprise parents with big charges, but parents can protect themselves through notifications.
Special to The Seattle Times
When the Case children, ages 8 and 9, started playing the free app "Monster Pet Shop," they wanted to take good care of their monsters. The bill they racked up feeding them "Monsterberries" was more than the family's real weekly grocery bill. "They thought they were buying the berries with points earned from playing the game, not with real dollars," said their mother, Leslie Case, of New York.
Games with "in-app" purchases can surprise parents with big charges, but parents can protect themselves by receiving email notifications after every online purchase, keeping passwords out of children's hands and even turning off their device's ability to make in-app purchases.
Sharing passwords can land families in trouble when children are too young to understand they are being charged for something inside a game. Parents may not even realize that paid items are offered inside free children's games.
"The business model counts on parents who don't monitor their children online 24/7, and don't know the ins and outs of how the games work — and that seems to include just about everyone," said Kristine Forbes, a Seattle mother of an active online teenage gamer.
Some parents are angry at game companies they say lure children in with a free experience and then ask them to pay real money for virtual goods, such as accessories or powers for a character, advancement to a new level or keeping a virtual animal well cared for.
Cherie Yurko, of Baldwinsville, N.Y., was surprised when she was charged for the lemonade her 10-year-old daughter purchased for her thirsty giraffe in the "Gina The Giraffe" app. "This game clearly targets children and such purchases are beyond ridiculous," she said.
Other parents have complained about "Dragonvale," "The Smurfs' Village" and "Wizard 101." Apple is currently facing a lawsuit brought by a group of parents in California over these kinds of so-called "bait apps."
Sometimes charges can sneak up on parents. Small dollar amounts from game companies can appear on families' credit-card bills, and while the parent doesn't recognize the vendor name, the amount is so small they do not pursue it. Over time the charges can add up.
Of course, most in-app purchases are legitimate and they are lucrative. According to the online-monitoring company Flurry, in-app purchases account for 65 percent of revenue in the Apple App Store, totaling more than $2 billion.
There are a number of ways to prevent unwanted purchases besides keeping passwords private from children. One is to sign up for email notifications for every purchase made on any online account. Another is to disable in-app purchases. On Apple iOS devices, controls are under the Settings icon. On the Android phone, customers can open the Google Play Store from the Menu button, and then go to Settings to set up a PIN required for purchases. They can also request purchase blocking from their phone-service provider. On the Kindle, parental controls can be accessed under Settings.
Putting a phone in Airplane mode before handing it to a child will disable cellular and Wi-Fi connections, so nothing can be downloaded or purchased.
Leslie Case was able to get a one-time refund from Apple for her children's Monsterberry purchases. Other parents have found their in-app experiences to be an expensive lesson for their child and themselves.
Julie Weed is a free-lance writer in Seattle. For other stories Teens, Tweens and Technology, go to seattletimes.com/ personaltechnology.