Expensive apps and game charges could land you in debt

When your children get restless, it's easy to hand over a smartphone or tablet, or plunk them in front of a computer or gaming console to buy yourself a few minutes of peace. What you might not realize is that you may be literally buying that time, via your device's stored credit card information. If you're not vigilant, your kids could be making purchases without your knowledge, to the tune of hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

You have to realize that while many games and apps are free, some -- even the ones geared toward small children -- are not. Or, they may be free at first, but offer purchasable add-ons, such as extra powers, extra lives or additional levels in the game.  in-app-purchases

In 2014, both Apple and Google Play reached settlements with the Federal Trade Commission regarding in-app purchases made by children without parental consent. In April 2016, Amazon was also found liable for such purchases. 

Even so, kids are still making headlines with their in-app spending. In December 2015 alone, a father in Pembroke, Ontario, was billed nearly $8,000 for his teen's in-game purchases on his Xbox, and a 7-year-old in the United Kingdom racked up nearly £4,000 playing Jurassic World on his dad's iPad.

In-app purchases are strategically placed
You might notice if your child purchases $100 worth of TV shows and movies, but if he downloads free games, you likely don't have a problem with it. However, games take advantage of kids' impatience or their focus on the game and offer paid products once the game is in session.

"Monetization is keyed into the addictive element of the games," says David Fewer, director of the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC). "The kid feels a compulsion, and the only way to win is to purchase extras."

The pressure increases with multi-player games, where kids are competing against their friends. If there are no parental controls, a young user might not think twice about hitting "accept" just to hurry up and move on to beating opponents.

Currently, legislation requiring a particular set of standards for in-app purchases doesn't exist, Fewer explains. There isn't even a code of best practices within the gaming industry that will lead to self-regulation. So it's up to parents to ensure that their kids don't fall into the trap of in-app purchases, and to know their refund options if their kids do get click-happy.

Familiarize yourself with the game, controls
"As a parent, I've always taken the view that I should play these games to really understand them," Fewer says.

What he's found is that many of the popular games involve "grinding," which means putting in the time on boring, repetitive jobs before you can access the parts of the game you really want to play, or to get the resources you need to level up. However, some allow the player to purchase "cheats" that allow you to skip grinding and get to the good parts, which is tempting for impatient kids.

Playing the game will give you better understanding of any purchases that crop up as kids play. Of course, you may not have the time or -- let's face it -- the skill to play every game your kids download. In that case, be sure to monitor your kids closely when they are on any device.

"Letting kids play with your tablet or phone is convenient, but you have to monitor," says Fewer. Ask them what games they are downloading and do a little digging to see not only what the content is like, but what in-app purchases the game offers, too.

Have rules in place for purchases -- for example, explain that they need to get a verbal confirmation from a parent that a purchase is OK, or that they can't spend more than $X at a time. While you may already have controls on the maturity of the downloadable content, you might not know you can also set up parental controls on the device to limit purchase abilities. Google Play, Amazon and Apple all have settings to put such controls in place. These can be set up so that a password is required to make a purchase of any amount.

Finally, check your purchase history regularly, and monitor your credit card activity online.

Getting a refund
If you haven't set up parental controls or you forget to turn them on and your child does make an in-app purchase without your consent, Fewer recommends simply calling the company and asking for your money back.

"There's little downside to complaining," he says, and there may be plenty to gain. Microsoft, for example, issued a refund to the Pembroke father for his son's hefty Xbox purchases.

In addition, let your local political representative know if this is an issue for you. "If the industry is not being responsible, there's value in letting legislators know," says Fewer. In the absence of self-regulation, they may take action if enough people complain.

The business model for regulating purchases that kids make without consent is evolving, says Fewer. "I don't think we've figured out how to do it yet." Until we do, it's up to parents to make sure that they are protecting themselves against unauthorized purchases and a nasty surprise on their next credit card bill.

See related: How to get your bank, creditor to reverse your fees, Loyalty programs aim to entice you with games
Published June 21, 2016

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