The App Trap: Avoiding In-App Purchases

Posted at 10:00 PM, Feb 01, 2013
and last updated 2013-02-01 16:03:44-05

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT)– Many parents use smartphones or tablets to entertain their kids but those free, downloaded games so many youngsters enjoy could lead to huge, unexpected bills for parents!

The reason? In-app purchases. These are purchases made while you’re using an application on your mobile device and one Huntsville family learned about them the hard way.

Betty League is 9 years old, and like a lot of kids these days, she loves to play with her parents’ mobile devices. Her mom Christi League was just fine with that until the day a jaw-dropping credit card bill showed up with charges totaling more than $900!

Christi and her husband were stumped. The kids swore they weren’t downloading anything. Finally, Christi got someone on the phone at Apple, who checked out the family’s iTunes account.

“He looked at it and said, ‘Well, does your daughter by any chance play a game called Social Girl?’” Christi said.

Betty had been playing the game and unknowingly making in-app buys.

As Christi explained, “It [would pop up and say], ‘Hey would you like to buy this pair of shoes for $3.99?’ She was hitting yes, thinking she was buying a virtual pair of shoes in a game. Well, it was actually charging us.”

“I was really surprised,” Betty now admits, “I thought it was just the game money.”

Like the League family, a lot of people don’t realize in-app purchases even exist. They’re often found in games that are free to download and can lack obvious warnings that you’ll be charged real dough for a digital item in the app.

Sometimes the purchases are just for an “extra” item.  Other times they are needed for a user to advance within the game. Many free-to-download apps also offer premium features for an additional fee.

Christi and her daughter think app developers need to include clearer notifications within the apps they make. Christi also would have liked a heads-up from Apple about unusual charges being racked up. Apple was willing to do a one-time dispute for the Leagues and wave the charges.  Betty was perhaps the most relieved.

“I was really happy then,” Betty said.  “I didn`t have to feel so bad cause they fixed it.”

For the whole family the ordeal has become a teaching moment. Christi has now turned off in-app purchases on her phone and recommends other parents do the same. To limit in-app purchases on your mobile device, follow these instructions:

On Apple devices:

  •     Touch your “Settings” icon
  •     Tap “General,” then “Restrictions,” then “Enable Restrictions”
  •     Enter a PIN number
  •     Scroll down and turn off in-app purchases using the toggle

On Android devices:

  •     Open the Google Play Store
  •     Press “Menu,” then select “Settings”
  •     Scroll down and under “User Controls” select “Change PIN”
  •     Enter a PIN number and check the box that says “Use PIN for purchases”