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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 02/ 2/2011

Apple iPhone games for children rack up shocking bills

By Cecilia Kang

tapzoo.jpg

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

By Cecilia Kang  | February 2, 2011; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Apple  
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Comments

"It was our mistake in that she knew our password, but ...."

Yes, indeed, it was your mistake. Passwords are important for many various reasons, but letting your children know the password. Sorry, but no sympathy there.

This goes for your Windows or Mac computer, too. Have a single Admin account and separate "limited" accounts for all users with passwords.

Now, I agree that the 15-minute window is unfortunate, but it seems clear that Pocket Gems is exploiting that. I'm sure others are, too.

Very sad.

Posted by: ZonkerInGeneva | February 2, 2011 9:23 AM | Report abuse

Does an eight year old 'really' need an iPhone?

Posted by: jimjohnd | February 2, 2011 10:09 AM | Report abuse

We have two iPhones and an iPad in the house. We have two kids. When my kids want a game or anything they have to bring their device to me, I enter the password, I do not allow my kids to shoulder surf or see my password.

I also tell them, they cannot buy anything inside the games without talking to us [their parents]. Punishment is swift, but not severe, for example, I just take away their devices for a day and if it happens on the weekend too bad. They can read a book instead. Our kids listen to us, because we are consistent with our approach to any attempt to by pass how we want them to behave.

In fact we have a rule that says, they can play games on their wii or iPad, but they have to spend the same amount of time reading and playing outside. So our kids read a lot now and they are fit.

Its the parents that are the problem, not Apple or technology. How about a facebook page to hold parents accountable too.

Posted by: kankrej | February 2, 2011 10:18 AM | Report abuse

It is so easy to point finger at others apparently these people forgot the other three are pointing at themselves.

Sad, children are their responsibility and not blame others when something goes wrong especially when it is their children who are committing the faults.

Yes it's so easy to blame others except themselves.

Pathetic.

Posted by: AdanC | February 2, 2011 10:31 AM | Report abuse

Totally your own fault for letting your children play with iOS devices with no restrictions! There are adequate safeguards for the people who are aware of them. But for the rest of the lazy people they will complain about the restrictions are not tough enough. Be proactive rather complain about your own mistakes. Do not hold other people accountable for your own faults.

Posted by: wtruong | February 2, 2011 10:33 AM | Report abuse

Which is the reason, blocking codes or not, should children even have IPhones. I'm 49 years old and I don't have or need and IPhone. Adults who have a need for them have them, but I know that even on my pay per view if my kids ran up a bill like that they would be working it off...

Posted by: dtzulu | February 2, 2011 10:38 AM | Report abuse

Kudos to all the people who commented so far. Usually in articles like this, there'd be a bunch of idiots siding with the parents who claim no responsibility for their actions.

Seriously, this article listed how to set a passcode in 3 steps, and how to turn off in-app purchasing in another 2. Even Agent Oso could do that...

Posted by: daiei | February 2, 2011 11:29 AM | Report abuse

P.S. Shame on the Post for baiting readers. I'll think twice before clicking on the next article...

Posted by: daiei | February 2, 2011 11:30 AM | Report abuse

the reason these kind of bills happen is because the electronics companies have reinvented dialup internet service as something far more expensive, anyone who buys these smartsphones,ipads,or even those verizon modems that i had bought once is subject to outrageous rates for internet servous, that doesnt exist for broadband service, in essence this is basically dialup in disguise as something more glossy and far more expensive, consumers should wise up and beware that this is what they're up to.

Posted by: senorziltox | February 2, 2011 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Wow... there are some hard-butt folks out there. I'm of a different opinion on this and suggest is is neither the parents or the children at fault; rather, it is the game maker who has figured out how to 'game' the system to their advantage. If the game publisher had driven up outside the kids house and attempted to lure them to his vehicle with a statement such as, "Hey little girl, want a bucket of stars?" you folks would be in an outrage and wanting the person hanged for child endangerment and exploration.

The Apple App Store should be required by the credit card folks to refund the moneys paid and Apple/Developer can figure out how to technically removed the add-ins. In my opinion this is soft-fraud, but fraud none the less. If Amazon can remove a book from a Kindle, Apple can remove a game component and refund the purchase price. If they can't, I would suggest this is a great time for another class action lawsuit against Apple.

And... an iPhone/iPad running a game is no different than a hand-held gaming device... get real folks; the only difference (at present) is that the dedicated hand held game device is not tied to an online candy store trying to lure unsuspecting people to buy expensive stuff to enhance the game play.

Complain to the credit-card company, deny to pay the charge, and call Apple and tell them you want to return those "snowflakes and jar of coins..."


Posted by: MRayBurne | February 2, 2011 11:46 AM | Report abuse

I think it is ludicrous that this is where we see growth in our economy, inventing meaningless games for children (and adults) to detach themselves from the real world and the people around them, and 'play'. If this is the best we can do, we really are in serious trouble. While there are real problems and real crises around the world, we are playing with our frigging phones.

Posted by: lhathaway | February 2, 2011 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Six or one and half a dozen of the other I fear. Though what in Lucifer's name an eight year old is doing playing with an iphone is beyond me.

Posted by: markzakovics | February 2, 2011 11:56 AM | Report abuse

Ok, I agree with everyone who said that the parents need to take more responsibility. Anyone who provides a young child with an expensive electronic device and unsupervised internet access is asking for trouble. Especially if that access includes the ability to spend money. Would they give a 6 year old their credit card and drop them off at a toy store for an hour?

However, let's not forget the software companies who are making it so easy for this to happen. Games geared toward children should not allow in-game purchases at all, but definitely not at the rates quoted above. Purchases for children's merchandise should never happen automatically. This is worse than kid's cartoon "shows" that are basically 30 minute commercials for the promoted toys.

While parents need to be more security conscious with their children, we also need to hold game companies to a higher standard when they are merchandising to youngsters.

Posted by: AMGalloway | February 2, 2011 11:56 AM | Report abuse

PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY.

Or more precisely, parental responsibility.

Also, these careless parents should really stop trying to spread their own cell phone addiction to their children. Six-year olds with a phone, give me a break! At that age, they should be learning to read a book not playing silly, cutesy,and EXPENSIVE iPhone games.

Posted by: coakl | February 2, 2011 11:59 AM | Report abuse

lhathaway: Oh, how I agree! It's not the game so much as the over indulgence in the game. Kids play with handheld game devices before they walk...
Same is true with social networking for many people... like a vortex pulling them in deeper and deeper because of some need to communicate with people who are called friends but really are just strangers with a "handle". I remember CB radio in the '60s and '70s... same mentality.
Twitter, Facebook are all good things when used in moderation but they can also be like a drug and near impossible to put down.

Posted by: MRayBurne | February 2, 2011 12:02 PM | Report abuse

The parents should have been paying attention, but that does not excuse this business practice. The apps are predatory and are designed to be predatory anyone that ignores that is just completely disconnected from reality. An app that allows/requires these types of fairly high $ purchases was obviously created with the intent of sticking parents with a bill they weren't expecting. I guarantee it is part of their business model, and how they were able to get funding/start up capital for their company to create these apps in the first place.

Posted by: Raph84 | February 2, 2011 12:16 PM | Report abuse

I think the real problem disclosed in the article is the notion of paying real money for virtual currency for a video game. Unlocking new levels of a game with new challenges is somewhat logical to me as you are effectively buying a new game. However, there is something creepy about tempting small children to spend real money of their parents for virtual "coins". Can't say just why, but to me it crosses a line. And we wonder why credit card debt is skyrocketing as some people seem to have no idea of the concept of actual money or value equivalence. Great training for our kids.

Posted by: LEK2 | February 2, 2011 12:23 PM | Report abuse

This article is inappropriately titled. It should be titled "PARENTS SHOCKINGLY NEGLIGENT".

Posted by: dlwilson70a | February 2, 2011 1:11 PM | Report abuse

I think that the way it is now is perfect. If we are not teaching our children the value of money, this will clearly remind us.

It also creates an opportunity to spend more time getting to know our children.

Of course you could always wait 15 minutes before you turn your kid loose with a new game.

Posted by: PhilSeymour | February 2, 2011 2:22 PM | Report abuse

In the world that we live in parents are so worried that their kids will not "love them" that they will buy them anything to earn that love. The parents should be taking the kids to the nearest library to enjoy the world of books. Spending time with games on the Iphone seems like a waste of time to me, but when my kids were young I did not have the money nor did I worry about them loving me.
This is just another example of parents not taking responsibility for their actions and are eager to blame someone else. How about the parents telling the kids to put on their coats and going outside for a walk instead.

Posted by: MALBENNET | February 2, 2011 7:34 PM | Report abuse

Let's see...the game download is FREE, but if you want to actually play the game, you must BUY other items. Is this right?

In my book, this does not make the game FREE, because the free game download is useless unless you buy other items.

Posted by: mel-wagner | February 2, 2011 10:07 PM | Report abuse

I frequently see parents giving their phone to kids in strollers as a toy to play with to keep them quiet. Exactly who is surprised given that lesson when a kids treats a phone like at toy - in fact I see a lot of grownups pretty much doing the same thing (while driving the car, while walking across a busy street head down like some idiotic cult zombie thing). 8 year old with a phone, much less an expensive smartphone?

Posted by: Flyover_Country | February 2, 2011 10:16 PM | Report abuse

Sure, these parents are foolish for letting a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old do ANYTHING online unsupervised (yes, I do have a child). And YES these game makers are EVIL for targeting them anyway.

But the other question to consider is for Apple - this damages their reputation in my eyes at least... I've been a MAC person for a long time, and few things have disappointed me. This one is a big disappointment. $20 for an intangible game function has ZERO redeeming value for society.

Posted by: staff1 | February 3, 2011 7:35 AM | Report abuse

I am a software developer and computer expert with computer-savy children, and I was burned by this on Sunday.

Of course, there are going to be conservative types who love to scream "Personal Responsibility" and "Its the PARENTS fault". And you're wired to believe that, but you are wrong.

The fact is these apps install for free but you have to provide the password. At that point, the child has at least 15 minutes to make an instant-click purchase of "fake money" that just happens to be real. The line is blurred in the phone so that a child under 10 probably can not even tell he is spending "real" money. There are free coins and paid coins and the distinction is unclear. That aside, the password caching is undocumented and parents like myself (and the person in this article) rely on the password as a layer of protection for our kids. My kids do not have my password, and they sure as heck aren't going to "guess it".

So I believed they were completely safe from accidental purchases, but they were not. Both of my kids (7 and 9) inadvertently bought coins in the same game within minutes of playing it. The 7 year old thought the money wasn't real money, and the 9 year old doesn't even think he did it, although he obviously did.

The fact is this is a simple tweak from Apple and they are choosing not to do it so far because they are collecting 30% of this revenue. Those who don't realize this is predatory are not being honest or informed about the situation.

Apple could easily:

1. Default the app purchasing to opt-out, rather than opt-in. This security feature is sufficiently buried and obscure that many new users aren't going to know about it until stories like this are more widely circulated.

2. Require a password EVERY TIME there is a purchase.

3. Allow users to set credit limits on their accounts. Right now, a child with some kind of in-app purchasing ability can keep charging until the credit card maxes out.

4. Eliminating predatory games with predatory options such as $50 and $100 purchasing buckets from the App store, a store that already has numerous restrictions on apps allowed on it.

So this is not a technical challenge, it is a bad corporate policy that is EASILY remedied. Apple has the capability of being excellent for kids as a touch computer. It is easy to use and the walled garden makes it extremely securable for children. So this runs counter to everything else about this device in the name of corporate profit.

I have spent hours and hours messing with options on this phone setting things up for my kids. Far more than a typical user would or could do. And I missed this security hole as well as the restriction option. I know if I can miss it, my savy kids can miss it, most other users don't stand a chance unless they are probably warned of this predatory practice.

Posted by: brent_goldberg | February 3, 2011 10:30 AM | Report abuse

8-year-olds don't "need" an iPhone, nor do they "need" an internet account. If they have access to such technology, a parent has had some say in this and should take responsibility. When things go wrong, deflecting the responsibility to "someone else" is the 21st century norm (although when things go right, folks happily toot their own horn about how clever they are.) The answer is at the end of the article disable the feature. If that's too difficult, remove the iPhone from the kid and get them another toy.

Posted by: WordGuy | February 3, 2011 1:42 PM | Report abuse

Security, particularly where children are concerned, must be the default. A parent who enables a child to take unsafe actions would be rightfully penalized by the extra charges. But that is not what happened, the unsafe actions were enabled by default. Shame on the game companies. They knew what they were doing, so does Apple and that is fraud.

Posted by: kdjkdj | February 3, 2011 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Another cautionary tale of lack of self-control. And it's not the kids that I'm referring to ...

Posted by: exceptionally_fun | February 3, 2011 5:05 PM | Report abuse

This isn't necessarily a "parental" problem.
It's a game targeted towards small children, that an adult would never load on their own.
A grandparent innocently letting their sweet grandchild hold the phone while waiting somewhere can unknowingly rack up a big bill without even realizing this isn't a free app, like most of the movies are. And everyone I know has let an interested child hold the phone or try to look at something on it.
You have to admit, they're an interesting toy and many adults do not know the capabilities of such devices.

For that matter, I know a lot of older adults who have unknowingly racked up a bill on face book playing the "free games".

If Apple doesn't want to take responsibility, then maybe the credit card company can require the security code be entered before every purchase.
That would solve the problem, and no fingers pointed at parents, app developers, etc.
Of course, that would be too simple!!

Posted by: MomtoMany5 | February 8, 2011 9:22 PM | Report abuse

I agree that it is the parents' responsibility, but kids will be kids and do figure out passwords, etc. An iPod Touch is not a wildly expensive toy, as some of the self-righteous have claimed. Certainly less expensive than XBox or PS3. We do not have credit cards attached to our iTunes accounts, but rather use iTune gift certificates to fund the accounts thereby limiting the potential risk to less than a few dollars.

Posted by: gardedgarton | February 9, 2011 11:32 AM | Report abuse

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