Apple iPhone games for children rack up shocking bills
In two days, eight-year-old Leyla Ulku collected tigers, sea turtles and giraffes on the iPhone game Tap Zoo to build her one-animal pen into a vast safari park. She also amassed a shocking $150 bill from Apple.
The iTunes game, made by San Francisco-based Pocket Gems, is one of the most popular for Apple gadgets and also one of the fastest grossing. But Tap Zoo and other games such as Smurf Village have sparked outrage among parents, who question Apple policies that allow games aimed at children to sell pricey add-ons without adequate sales safeguards.
The games are part of category of free applications on Apple's iTunes store that let companies charge users for products and services when the application is launched. Those purchases for Tap Zoo include $19 for a bucket of stars or $99 for a bucket of coins to buy animals to build a safari.
Pocket Gems said earlier this month that it received $5 million in financing from Sequoia Capital and had its first month of "multi-million-dollar" sales. It has had 18 million downloads of its applications, including Tap Farm and Tap Jungle, the firm said.
Applications analytics firm Distino said in January that revenues from in-app purchases for popular iPad and iPhone applications doubled in the second half of 2010. Apple takes a 30 percent cut of the sales by companies such as Pocket Gems and Capcon Interactive, creator of Smurf Village.
Apple said it tries to prevent episodes like Leyla's from happening by requesting a password when making "in app purchases." And parents can change settings on iPhones, iPads and iPods to restrict downloading and in-app purchases, Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller said.
But parents say changing those settings isn't so easy. And, once a password is entered, it doesn't have to be reentered for 15 minutes, allowing users to make additional purchases.
For Leyla, who figured out her parents' password, that meant in one sessions last week, she was able to quickly snap up 11 "vials of snowflakes" at 99 cents apiece and several "jars of coins" for $19.99 each. By the time her parents learned she had found her way to making purchases, it was too late.
"It was our mistake in that she knew our password, but it feels like a scam because it was so easy for her to buy things at prices that shouldn't be in a child's game," said her father and my friend, Sezer Ulku.
Turns out other families are complaining of similar episodes involving their children.
Tobias Egede Feldt started a Facebook page called "Ban Credit Card Bait Apps on Apple Appstore" two days ago after his two children, ages 4 and 6, downloaded the free game Smurf Village but racked up $50 in charges buying berries on the game. Games targeted to kids, particularly, should be more clearly labeled, he said.
"I hope that this group will gather enough members to draw the attentions of the Apple top management, and help Apple find the right path to long lasting customer loyalty when it comes down to the AppStore," he wrote on the page.
Recently, Smurf Village and Tap Zoo included disclaimers on the iTunes store saying that the games were free but that items purchased within the games cost real money.
"The last thing we want is for our customers to purchase in-app content accidentally," Pocket Gems wrote in a statement by e-mail. "Unfortunately, when a user downloads an app, Apple's iOS stores their password for 15 minutes. During this window it is possible to download in-app content without having to re-enter the password."
For the Ulku family, with two iPhones and an iPad in their home, that means if anyone has downloaded an app from the family's iTunes account, within a quarter of an hour, anyone can make charges without a password on any of those devices.
Sezer Ulku said Apple could make parental controls the default position. At the time of sale for an Apple product, the company could ask customers if they would like to set up that feature, he and other parents said.
How to turn off in-app purchases:
1. Go to Settings
2. Select Restrictions
3. Enter four-digit security passcode
4. On Restrictions screen, go to In App Purchases toward bottom
5. Turn to Off
| February 2, 2011; 9:00 AM ET
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