Restrictions on In-App purchases: three steps to avoid a Smurfberry disaster

The increasing amount of accidental in-app purchases in Capcom's App Store game Smurfs' Village has led Apple to give the developer a mouthful about its purchase strategy. The free game, ranked among the top grossing apps in almost every country, has reached such heights thanks to the freemium model: users can purchase extra virtual currency called Smurfberries to progress faster in the game. 


If you haven't read about it yet, many customers have been complaining about excessive charges to their credit cards from iTunes purchases. Since the game is free to download, many parents didn't realise that you could buy extra in-app content with real money. Last week the Washington Post reported that an eight-year-old boy spent $1,400 in Smurfs' Village alone. This is not the first time it happens. After several customer complains, Capcom updated the App Store description text to warn users that Smurfberries cost actual money. According to Jon Jordan at PocketGamer.biz and Apple Insider, Apple recently had "strong words" over the use of in-app purchases and suggested that it might introduce changes in the future. 

How can a kid spend such an amount of money without the parents' permission? The problem has to do with the iTunes password verification. Every time you want to download any content (even for free,) you will be asked to enter your iTunes password. For the next 15 minutes, you will be free to shop around without being asked for your password again. The same goes for in-app purchases. Download a freemium game for free, and in the next 15 minutes you are allowed to buy virtual goods within the app with real money. 

 

This is an obvious threat for anyone using an iPhone. You wouldn't want anyone to buy something accidentally or give your children a blank cheque. I've investigated the different ways to protect your account (and hard earned money) to avoid a Smurfberry hell. These are three simple steps that everyone should consider doing. 

 

1. Reset your iTunes password

 

 Change your current password to a save 12-plus-character long combination using symbols, letters and numbers (1Password is great for this.) You can manage your Apple ID directly on Apple's website. https://appleid.apple.com/cgi-bin/WebObjects/MyAppleId.woa/ 

2. Enable restrictions on the device 
You can prevent any user from using in-app purchases from the restrictions panel on your iOS device. This menu is located under Settings>General>Restrictions. Notice you will be asked to create a 4-digit code to make changes in this section. Again, please be creative, as some young users have managed to get through this trying different combinations. 
 

 

3. Purchase content from your desktop
In order to avoid any accidental tap on the purchase buttons on my iPad or iPhone, I never use my password on them. I limit myself to download both free and paid content on my Mac, so I will never fall into the 15 minute trap.
Top tip for parents: if you still choose to buy on the App Store from your iDevice, you can always sign out manually. To do this, go to Settings>Store and tap the sign out button. 
These simple three steps should help you to avoid any Smurfberry disaster. Even if you don't have children, some friend or partner could eventually make a regrettable purchasing decision, so please, take these tips seriously. 
I'm not against in-app purchases at all, but I recognise that the high-tier options can't be justified. I don't see many apps priced at £59.99, so having virtual goods available to purchase for this amount is out of order. I wish Apple would allow us to limit the amount we spend in that 15 minute gap.  

 

The freemium model is not necessarily bad and wasn't created to scam gamers. Its introduction in the App Store was pioneered by Ngmoco with Eliminate and since then many developers have jumped on the bandwagon. In fact, in the latest Mobile Games Forum conference in London, this was the common theme in the keynotes. This trend is not going to disappear anytime soon and will help studios to launch new titles specifically designed for iOS and it's audience. In-app purchases are not bad, unless you don't take these simple security tips with your account.