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In-app purchases: how your kids could leave you with a giant mobile phone bill

Emma Lunn
by Lovemoney Staff Emma Lunn on 01 February 2013  |  Comments 12 comments

Letting your kids play with your mobile could end up costing you hundreds of pounds thanks to in-app purchases.

In-app purchases: how your kids could leave you with a giant mobile phone bill

A new kind of “bill shock” is hitting parents across the country as they receive unexpectedly high credit card bills due to their children making in-app purchases on smartphones.

Regulator Phonepay Plus has reported a 300% increase in complaints from consumers shocked by huge bills either due to costly purchases or malware designed to defraud phone users.

In some cases kids are running up bills of thousands of pounds by buying virtual items.

What’s an in-app purchase?

App developers tend to make games free so they make their way to the top of the download charts. Figures from Phonepay Plus show that two out of three 11-16 year olds have downloaded a free app on to a smartphone or tablet.

But once the app has been downloaded app developers make their money from in-app purchases, dubbed IAPs.

Typically when it comes to games you can buy hints, tips or equipment that helps you move through the game’s levels. Popular games such as Angry Birds, Playmobil Pirates, Coin Dozer, Racing Penguin and Smurfs’ Village all have IAPs.

IAPs are easy to buy – depending on how your phone or tablet is set up, one click can mean the credit card or bank account linked to your account is automatically charged.

Shocked parents

In many cases parents only realise what their kids are up to when they get their credit card bill.

My friend’s eight-year-old son ran up a £461 bill on her credit card by buying donuts on the Simpsons Tapped Out game – he kept buying 2,400 donuts at £69.99 a pop. Perhaps surprisingly Apple was understanding when she contacted it and agreed to refund the money as a one-off gesture.

Parenting websites are full of bill shock stories due to in-app purchases.

For example, in a discussion forum thread entitled “iTunes Horror” on Mumsnet, several users report massive bills.

Northboveygirl explained how her daughter spent £500 on "berries” for a monster app in eight transactions. Replying, Cottonmouth said her legs turned to jelly when she realised her daughter had spent £900 on in-app purchases in just 10 minutes.

Because iTunes accounts are typically linked to credit cards or bank accounts, letting your offspring use your iTunes account is effectively giving them access to the entire credit limit on the linked card or account.

Meanwhile in one of the more extreme cases noted by Phonepay Plus, it was reported that children had downloaded counterfeit versions of games from Google's Android app store.

These games were infected with malware which, whenever opened, added a £15 charge to the user's phone bill without their knowledge.

Blocking IAPs

There have been numerous reports to date that Apple has been understanding about unintended IAPs by children and refunded the money. However, it’s not worth taking the risk as Apple could easily decide to adopt a tougher approach.

The good news is that parents can restrict access to IAPs or block them completely.

Under current rules, after iTunes users have entered their password to buy a product, there is a 15-minute window during which they need not supply their password again when making further purchases.

It means if a parent downloads a game and then lets their child play it immediately, the child can make as many in-app purchases as they like for the next 15 minutes before being prompted for the password again.

You can avoid the 15 minute password period by logging out of iTunes after making a purchase.

iPhone and iPad users can also turn off IAPs completely and require a passcode to turn them back on. To do this on an iPhone, go to settings, tap general, then restrictions, and then set an unlock code. Also, scroll down to the in-app purchases switch and slide to off.

If you have an android phone or tablet, just head to the Google Play Store, find the settings tab, and under user controls you'll be able to set a PIN.

Kindle Fire users can set parental controls to restrict in-app purchases. To enable parental controls, go to settings on your Kindle and select the “parental controls” option. On the next screen, select “on” located on the right side. You’ll then need to create a password that will be required to purchase any content on your Kindle Fire.

More on mobiles and gadgets:

Tablet data plans: a waste of money

How your mobile phone can help you manage your money

Google Chromebook versus Apple iPad Mini: battle of the gadgets

What really happens when your mobile phone is stolen

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Comments (12)

  • electricblue
    Love rating 769
    electricblue said

    Pity that total idiots are allowed to breed, isn't it? Letting a child loose on an unrestricted contract phone is just moronic. The phones may be smart, just a pity about their owners. I don't doubt that they will be letting their kids play with their phones while they deal with that nice Microsoft engineer with and Indian accent who only wants £140 to sort out their nasty computer virus. When that's paid they can get back to sending the Western Union fee to that Nigerian prince......

    Report on 02 February 2013  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • culluding-fool
    Love rating 60
    culluding-fool said

    I assume this isn't talking about iPhones, so which OS had this lack of security? My six year old happily downloads and plays games on my iPhone but anything that she does that would cost money (apart from making a non-free phone call) pops up a password prompt. She doesn't know the password so can't go any further. I'm thinking of replacing this iPhone with an Android phone when my contract runs out, but if it has such poor security that I can be charged for things without entering a password then I really need to think again about it. I'm really frustrated with IOS's restrictions. Maybe I should jail break it instead but there's another can of worms...

    Report on 03 February 2013  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • nickthecrip2
    Love rating 17
    nickthecrip2 said

    I agree with electricblue. Anyone who allows a child to have unrestricted access to a contract phone that is linked to a credit card gets all that they are asking for. If parents can only learn to say 'NO' to giving their offspring these expensive phones then a lot of problems could be avoided. IF a child really needs a phone why can't it be a PAYG? Cheaper to buy & run & a lot less to lose when or if it is stolen or lost.

    Report on 03 February 2013  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • pastsellby
    Love rating 6
    pastsellby said

    I think perhaps, 'culluding-fool' , you didn't read the whole article. The writer did explain how all smart phones can be affected, and how to avoid the problems.

    I do agree with 'electricblue' and 'nickthecrip2' in their general comments.

    Report on 03 February 2013  |  Love thisLove  1 love
  • culluding-fool
    Love rating 60
    culluding-fool said

    I disagree with PAYG being cheaper, it depends on what you use your phone for. I used to use PAYG until I discovered that I could not only pay less each month with a contract but I also got an iPhone in the deal. My two year contract is nearly up so I will have a good look around before jumping into another one because I was very disappointed with the iPhone as it lacked a lot of simple features I had used on my old Samsung G600.

    I still don't understand how these kids are getting past the password protection. I can't buy anything via my iPhone without the password. I can download all the free stuff like but as soon as a payment is needed then a message pops up asking for a password. Is there a way around that?

    I don't let my daughter play with my phone unsupervised, mainly for fear of her dropping it, and I wouldn't let her play with my phone if it wasn't for personal use only.

    Report on 03 February 2013  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • sodit
    Love rating 135
    sodit said

    The solution to this and 0900 number billing scams is to stop phones being billed for anything other than standard rate calls. If something other is being bought, then the purchaser can submit their credit card details on a purchase form.

    All it would take is a short Act of Parliament.

    But then, this last decade and a half, our government has stopped working in the interests of the public, so I wouldn't recommend holding one's breath.

    Report on 03 February 2013  |  Love thisLove  1 love
  • Stargazer
    Love rating 11
    Stargazer said

    Maybe I'm just an old skinflint, but I've had an Android phone for a while and haven't yet found an app really worth paying for (although I have plenty of good free ones). So I've never had to give Google my credit card number. By far the simplest way to prevent anyone running wild with in-app purchases, I'd say!

    Report on 03 February 2013  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • ajrr1
    Love rating 19
    ajrr1 said

    electricblue & nickthecrip2:

    I completely agree that if you KNEW there is a chance that your child could make purchases through a credit card linked to your iTunes/Google Play account you would be an idiot to allow uncontrolled access.

    However, a lot of this technology is new to people. Not everyone is tech savvy and there can be a steep learning curve. Think of the scenario of a busy working mother who has never had a smartphone before, and is busy making dinner when these purchases are made. Then think of grandparents who have done well to even work out how to use a smartphone.

    It's very hard to mitigate risks you are not aware of or even understand could exist. Hence the point of this article.

    Report on 04 February 2013  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • electricblue
    Love rating 769
    electricblue said

    If you're not 'Tech Savvy' then why the hell would you buy a smart phone? A busy working mother and 'grandparents' should perfectly well know how to read contracts and see what they could be liable for. No-one forces people to adopt technology they don't understand. I have two smart phones on contract, one of which I gave to my girlfriend and I immediately blocked them both to the inclusive calls and downloads. Rocket Science? NOT.

    If buying a phone which may be used by a child then make totally sure that the contract and capabilities of the phone are explained to you in the shop and your liabilities are limited.

    The only thing you can't mitigate against is your own stupidity.

    Report on 04 February 2013  |  Love thisLove  1 love
  • ajrr1
    Love rating 19
    ajrr1 said

    Taking that argument to it's logical conclusion... you'd never buy anything you weren't an expert in.

    Don't buy a car - you may get ripped off on servicing.

    Don't have a credit card - thieves may discover how to clone it.

    Don't buy a house - you may get ripped off by plumbers/electricians/builders etc

    Are you saying you've never been in ANY situation where you suspect you may have paid more for something than you should because of your lack of knowledge?

    People can't be experts in everything they do / own.

    Internet access is the classic example of this. People who don't have it really miss out on the best prices for many things. My father has broadband and a PC, but he relies on my for PC support as he is from a generation that doesn't understand computers as well as we do.

    God help you when you are of pensionable age. You'll need to go and live in a cave.

    Report on 06 February 2013  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • yocoxy
    Love rating 152
    yocoxy said

    @EB. I look forward to hearing more about your breeding control program. It sounds like an interesting world you have in mind..

    Report on 06 February 2013  |  Love thisLove  0 loves
  • leah AKA global leah
    Love rating 17
    leah AKA global leah said

    I can understand the concerns regarding children "buying" through your phone account, my partner's son is 12, although he does understand when we tell him that he can download any games he wants to, as long as it is free, the problem that we all seem to overlook is the fact that when you're downloading, your data is being used at the same time. As my partner don't have ISP, so when I am at his, I tend to use my own data, which normally 1Gig do last me for the month, but I had found that I had ended up buying more data, as I am a pretty heavy user on it personally to start with. So if your contract has a limited data, you should be careful as well

    Report on 07 February 2013  |  Love thisLove  0 loves

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