The problem of unapproved in-app purchases was back in the news last week, as the Federal Trade Commission announced a settlement with Apple in that case over children’s iOS shopping sprees without parental consent. Apple will be paying out at least $32.5 million in refunds to parents who suddenly found a whole pile of unexpected charges on their credit-card bills after letting the kids use their phones and tablets. As part of the settlement, Apple must change its billing practices to show that it has obtained informed consent from the credit-card holder before charging them for extra power packs, coins, weapons, lives and other virtual merchandise typically sold inside a mobile app itself — and not as a separate download from the App Store.
The FTC’s report said Apple failed to warn parents that by entering a password for what many assumed was just a single in-app charge, they were also giving their kids 15 minutes to make unlimited purchases without further parental permission or passwords. As many parents know, that’s plenty of time for some kids to rack up a few hundred dollars in charges. Since the suit, Apple has released an online guide to in-app purchases in its stores and more parents have educated themselves, (and are perhaps watching the kids a little more closely now).
The FTC-Apple case also gave Consumer Reports a reason to go looking at the Google Play Store, to see what its in-app purchase policies entailed. The magazine reported its findings in an article titled “Google Play Store lets your kid spend like a drunken sailor.” As Consumer Reports reminds everyone, Google Play has a policy of giving an in-app buyer 30 minutes of unsupervised shopping time before the store password needs to be re-entered.
Both Google and the FTC aren’t saying if the Google Play store is under similar scrutiny for failure to notify or require explicit permission for in-app purchases even within the gaping 30-minute window, but given the Apple settlement, it wouldn’t be surprising if discussions underway. (Stories about how to get refunds if the kids do go wild are available around the Web and Google has refund info on its site as well.) A Google spokesperson did state to Consumer Reports that: “We always appreciate feedback and are currently working on new features that give our customers even more information and control over their Google Play purchases.”
In the meantime, if you have kids and mobile devices, take advantage of the available parental controls to keep your children from not only buying things from online app stores directly, but from even using certain apps on the phone or tablet without supervision. After all, the HBO GO app has a lot of great shows you can stream, but you probably don’t want your pre-teen kids gawping through a Sex and the City marathon while you’re at work.
Here are a few ways to lock down various systems and devices:
- If you’re in an iOS family, be sure to check out Apple’s guide to setting up Restrictions (including those for App Store access and In-App Purchases) on the mobile device. The iTunes desktop software also has Parental Controls you can activate. Mac OS X has general-level Parental Controls as well — check out the guides for OS X Mavericks (10.9), OS X Mountain Lion (10.8) and OS X Lion (10.7) and earlier versions of OS X.
- Android 4.3 and later includes the ability to set up restricted profiles that can be used as parental controls to block access to certain apps on the device. And if you haven’t already done it, password-protect your Google Play account.
- Amazon has guides to setting up parental controls for Amazon Instant Video on a Kindle Fire as well as for older Kindle readers; the site also has instructions specifically for restricting in-app purchases. Kindle Fire models include a FreeTime feature for controlling a child’s use of the tablet, as well as a paid version called Kindle FreeTime Unlimited that ditches advertising and provides curated content. You can find parental controls info for your specific Kindle model by searching the Kindle Support section of Amazon’s site.
- Microsoft’s Windows tablets, like Windows 8 for the desktop, also include parental controls and a Family Safety feature to help keep kids out of trouble on tablets and computers.
While software parental controls may not be as effective as real-time human parental controls, they can help virtually corral the kids during those times when Mom and Dad are doing something else — like paying bills.