updated 02:14 am EDT, Thu March 14, 2013
Second such story in a week points to in-app concerns
Despite the fact that there are several distinct and easy methods to prevent children from accessing in-app purchasing or limit their ability to do so, another story has surfaced of a child -- apparently with full access to his parents' credit-card-attached iTunes account -- that has run up a large bill making excessive numbers of in-app purchases. This time, the eight-year-old son of a Belfast couple was able to spend £980 ($1,464) on in-game purchases to help him play a Simpsons game.
Apple had already refunded the money to the parents by the time the story was reported, but it is curious that a cluster of similar stories have popped up just recently. The problem stems from two weak points: games clearly aimed at kids that include expensive in-app purchases (IAPs) that in some cases are required -- or nearly impossible to complete the game without -- and parents who are unaware or lackadaisical in setting parental controls and other safeguards to prevent such purchases.
In both the Belfast case and the $2,500 bill run up by a five-year-old boy in Essex, the parents said that it was "too easy" for children to buy expensive IAPs for their games, and in the latter case claimed that the child did not have access to to the iTunes password. However, Apple changed the rules for IAPs two years ago -- where there was once a 15-minute window under which IAPs could be bought without re-entering a password, iOS 4.2 closed the window and required re-entering the iTunes account password for each and every in-app purchase.
In addition, Apple offers parental controls that turn off the ability to buy IAPs at all, and even has an "allowance" program where parents can give children their own iTunes account, but limit funding to a pre-set amount (either by manually funding it or setting a weekly or monthly amount) -- preventing kids from having any access to an account that has a credit card attached to it. Apple also advises parents not to share the iTunes account password with children, as happened in the Belfast case.
Apple does not always refund IAPs made by children if it is obvious that parents failed to take any actions to prevent unauthorized purchases or circumvented restrictions, and initially refused a refund to the Essex parents. In that case, the parents had allowed their five-year-old son to "buy" a free game that was rated 9+ called Ninjas vs. Zombies. Likewise, the game eight-year-old Theo Rowland-Fry was playing, the ironically-named The Simpsons: Tapped Out, is rated 12+ -- however it does feature a $100 IAP for a "boatload" of 2,400 doughnuts, which is the currency used in the game to advance. While a purchase is not required to finish the game, for a younger player it would be a logical aid to enable them to progress.
Appel was sued in 2011 over the former 15-minute window that made it possible for especially quick-witted children to rack up unauthorized purchases even without knowing the account password. Apple eventually settled the case by offering full refunds for parents caught by the loophole who incurred greater than $30 charges, and offering a $5 store voucher for smaller incidents.
Rowland-Fry's father told a Belfast paper that his son "has no real concept of the monetary value attached [to the purchase]," despite standard dialogues that reiterate the cost of the IAP before the purchase is completed. He said that as far as the boy was concerned, "he was just buying doughnuts." Since Apple implemented its IAP rule changes two years ago, few stories of such abuses have turned up in the US or most other countries.