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Parents Beware: Some 'Free' Kids' iPhone Apps Are a Scam

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Natalie Martinez-Brown:Call me crazy, but I decided to give my son my iPod Touch after I graduated to an iPhone.

iphone-app-scam.jpg
He was given explicit instructions to only download free games. He would do the app shopping, and when he found something he liked, I would verify that it was free and age-appropriate, and then I would enter my iTunes password. I noticed that the iPod kept asking me to enter my password over the next couple of days. I thought this was strange, but I did it a few times, thinking perhaps I had an upgrade pending. Imagine my surprise when I received an iTunes invoice for $21.23!

Among the charges:

  • "Zombie Farm, Gravestone" -- $0.99

  • "Zombie Farm, 10 Brains" -- $6.99

  • "Toy Story 3, Woody's Wild Ride" -- $0.99

  • "Tap Fish, Bundle of 150 Fish Bucks" -- $4.99

  • "Tap Fish, Bundle of 150 Fish Bucks" -- $4.99

  • I verified that the games were, in fact, free. They were -- but those three "free" games ultimately cost me $18.95! (Some purchases were not listed above.) According to my iTunes account, these are "in-app purchases" -- non-free items used while playing their "free" games. My son bawled his head off when confronted, swearing that he didn't do anything that wasn't free. For once, I believed him.

    Given the number of times my iPod Touch asked me to enter my password,it seems these apps were trying to get access to my account to complete these unwanted purchases. The worst offender, in my opinion, is Disney, who is clearly targeting kids with their "free" "Toy Story 3" app. Kids may unwittingly purchase in-app features, thinking they are playing a free game! I'm sure Disney will point to their Terms of Use or End User Agreements, but what adult -- let alone CHILD -- reads those?! Disney has been marketing to kids for years, but this is a new low in my opinion.

    Here's how to make sure this doesn't happen to you!

    How to disable in-app purchases:

    1. Go to "Settings."
    2. Click on "General."
    3. Click on "Restrictions."
    4. Click on "Enable Restrictions."
    5. This will prompt you to choose a 4-digit PIN/password; reenter.
    6. Scroll down to "In-App Purchases" and slide to "Off."

    Now your in-app purchases will be disabled, your free apps will be free again and you can give the iPod Touch back to your kid (maybe). This of course will not prevent others from being taken advantage of, so use your social-networking skills to create awareness about this very sneaky business practice!

    Pass this on, write a negative review on iTunes (I did), tweet and FB your hearts out. Tell them that you are sick of being nickled-and-dimed, and that it's deplorable to target kids.


    next: Babies with Syphilis?
    75 comments so far | Post a comment now
    Sara July 12, 2010, 11:27 AM

    It’s very clear that you’re spending money when making in app purchases. It not only asks for your password but shows the amount that you’re spending. This is not the fault of the game but the fault of you (for not giving good instructions) and your child (who obviously saw the price of the app before he bought it)

    Pamala July 12, 2010, 4:14 PM

    Yeah I have two of those three apps, it’s pretty obvious when you’re purchasing things in them. So maybe your son was bawling because he knew what he was doing.

    ian July 24, 2010, 3:32 AM

    my friend daughter spend 300 dollar on farm story in app purchase. Little kids can’t understand. It’s like part of the game. Best use a visa gift card limit to low amount. Like anything. Poop happen.

    Jenn August 5, 2010, 12:59 PM

    I’m assuming there is no way to have it reversed?? My 8yr old just spent $55 in Farm Story on some stupid jewels!! It was my husbands iPhone. My son said it asked for a password in the begining but not before the purchase. He didn’t realize it was spending his daddys “real” money!!!!

    Connie September 15, 2010, 4:32 PM

    The same thing happened to me with Tap Zoo! Thanks for this warning, I had no idea. When kids play the “free” games they press buttons quickly and do not have any idea this is happening. I did not know it was happening! Should be big WARNING on some of these games.

    Kim October 18, 2010, 12:25 AM

    The exact same thing happened to me! My almost-6-yr old son was so busy playing his games and busily tapping that he had no idea what was going on, and neither did I when I entered in my password. If this happens to you, contact Apple and they might be willing to credit you.

    Natalie Martinez-Brown October 18, 2010, 8:32 AM

    to Sara: I never once saw the cost of these in-app purchases (as I stated the device kept asking me to enter my password with no explanation) and the apps were free. I didn’t even know these existed to be honest but it’s clear that you are one of those mommies that judge. Pat yourself on the back for being so superior to the rest of us.I stand by my stance that these are deceptive marketing practices. The purpose of this article was to inform and help those like myself (which as you can see there are others) who were unaware of the high cost of playing a game marketed as free.

    Natalie Martinez-Brown October 18, 2010, 8:34 AM

    to Jenn: Kim is correct! Contact Apple, they were very gracious and helpful! And I agree, the kids do not realize that they are spending real money since the games usually have some form of token courtesy. Very sad that some readers assume our kids are lying :(

    Natalie Martinez-Brown October 18, 2010, 9:34 AM

    Um, make that “token CURRENCY” not “courtesy”!

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