Apple starts refunding misleading games

6 March 2013, 11:55   By Sam Smith

APPLE has agreed to pay back £1,700 to the parents of a five-year-old boy who spent the cash on a 'free' iPad game.

apple logo on building
Credit: 360b/

It's the second major refund in the space of a month.

Danny Kitchen unwittingly spent the four-figure-sum on in-app updates for the game Zombies vs Ninjas.

Every time he bought extra ammunition, weapons or lives, he spent £69.99 on his parents' account.

Parents Sharon and Greg, from Bristol, initially dismissed the payments as mistaken, but later received a phone call from their credit card company questioning 19 transactions.

Only then did they realise their son had been using their iPad passcode to buy the updates.

Mrs Kitchen told the BBC: "He just asked for the code to add to the game but he wasn't fully understanding what he did. And to be honest, I'm not sure how he did it."

Apple has agreed to refund the money, having recognised the purchases were 'clearly unintentional'.

Mrs Kitchen added: "It was far too easy a thing for him to do and more should be done to limit stuff like this from happening.

"That game is very annoying - and who would spend more than £1,700 on a game? It's the first time any of our kids have done anything like this - and it will be the last."

The Kitchen family is by no means alone when it comes to children spending money on in-app game purchases though.

Not the first time

Just two weeks previously, England rugby international Sam Vesty was left with a 'nasty shock' after his two sons ran up a £3,200 bill on a virtual farm game in under three hours.

The game used in-app billing to charge users for updates, such as a 'mountain of food' for £69.99.

Apple agreed to refund Vesty the money, although according to MSE, iTunes said at the time "it would not be so lenient if the children did the same again."

These are large, but by no means solitary cases though, in fact in the US the tech giant may be forced to cough up £66 million ($100m) after parents complained it didn't provide adequate security to prevent their children spending their money.

Martin Lewis is now calling for UK consumers to receive the same compensation as in America, as so far in the UK refunds are only discretionary.

Should smartphone games be allowed to charge money?

There are currently three types of mobile apps: free, paid-for and 'freemium', with the latter causing the problem.

'Freemium' isn't how they're being advertised, so until you download and start playing it's not possible to tell them apart from any other free game.

In addition, they rarely warn that extra purchases are incorporated into further game play, which that and the extortionate costs involved, is where they become misleading.

Unsurprisingly, the question is being raised whether smartphone games should be allowed to charge real money during game play in this way.

Regulation has been mooted new window, along with greater transparency from the developers, including warnings on downloading and installing the app.

But it's the high prices hidden within these games that creates so much disbelief: it's hard not to see how charging £70 for 'virtual gems' in a My Little Pony game is anything but "Immoral" as MSE quite rightly put in.

Preventative parenting

It also begs the question how parents can protect against their children running up such huge bills.

Martyn Landi, a writer with Apps magazine, told the BBC: "We are hearing stories like this all the time, so credit to Apple for paying the money back.

"But it is a risky strategy for parents to simply think they can claim the money back if all goes wrong.

"A few seconds spent checking these things can save a lot of money and stress in the long run."

The onus currently is on parents to protect themselves then, which there are currently three main ways of doing: passwords, supervising children and restricting in-app purchases through the device's settings.

No parent is going to stand over their child while they build a virtual farm and with kids becoming increasingly tech-savvy, a simple password clearly does little to provide enough protection to prevent accessing an account.

Which realistically only leaves one option.

There are settings new window on iOS and Android that can prevent in-app purchases, although it's worth bearing in mind these aren't turned on by default.

Regulation likely?

With Apple starting to refund millions in 'unintentional purchases', and Martin Lewis making noise about the morality of developers, it seems likely that something will have to give.

At the moment that could be anything from regulation; greater transparency around categorising the games or providing warnings; spending caps; improved OS control and notifications.

It's common for these kind of things to get self regulated first, and generally only escalate to independent regulation when that continues to fail.

So perhaps the time has come for developers to build in greater transparency around what they're doing and perhaps have a realistic thought about how much they should be attempting to charge children to play a game.

Remember your son telling you he now has new tractors for his virtual farm? It might be worth checking whether the virtual world has cost you in very real terms.

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