It’s an issue that’s been in the news of late after England rugby play Sam Vesty revealed his two sons had racked up a bill of £3,200 in less than three hours by buying food for virtual farm animals with real money.
Vesty has told how his six and eight-year-old boys were playing a virtual farm game which was free to download, but which used in-app billing to charge users for any extras.
He only became aware of the charges after opening an email from Apple’s iTunes store which billed him for a “mountain of food” at £69.99. It later transpired his children had actually purchased 54 of these “mountains”.
The story immediately prompted similar tales of woe from parents on tech forums and provoked anger from consumer champions.
Martin Lewis from MoneySavingExpert, said: “Apple especially makes a play of only allowing approved apps in its store. So why does it allow games that can be targeted at young children to charge such ridiculous amounts for in-app purchases?”
It’s a debate that has been raging on both sides of the Atlantic. Now Apple has agreed to pay $100m (£66m) in compensation to parents in the US whose youngsters generated astronomical bills buying extra content for so-called “free” games for the iPad.
As many as 23 million people in America could be eligible for a refund from Apple, although the decision is unlikely to affect parents in the UK.
The compensation claims centre around games known as “bait apps” which draw children in by being free to download but then require that you buy extra credit to progress through higher levels.
Since March 2011, users have needed to input a password to authorise any transactions but many parents across the globe had already been hit by large and unexpected bills previously. Complaints have also centred around the lack of security with many children becoming aware of their parents password simply by being on their knee or nearby when it is inputted. There have been calls for extra levels of security on such apps.
In the US, a legal case was triggered by the father of a nine-year-old girl from Pennsylvania. She had purchased $200 (£132) of virtual money from three free Apple games.
Her father argued that the games were “highly addictive” and specifically designed to “compel” children to buy currency.
Filed by five parents in 2011, the lawsuit further alleged that: “Apple failed to adequately disclose that third-party game apps, largely available for free and rated as containing content suitable for children, contained the ability to make in-app purchases.”
The case involves some of the world’s most popular games – including Angry Birds, Zombie Takeover, Playmobil Pirates and Racing Penguin. While parents believe they are being frugal by only allowing their youngsters to download free content, they can soon get a nasty shock if in-app purchases are made without their knowledge.
The settlement offered by Apple requires court approval, expected to be granted on March 1.