Avoiding in-app purchase charges, $99 a pop
When I was in secondary school, I saw a brochure in a magazine to buy a whole Encyclopaedia. I just filled in my address and popped it in the postbox without any stamp or anything. When I had completely forgotten about it, a man rang at the door asking for me. You should have seen my mum's face talking to the salesperson carrying a load of leather-bound Encyclopaedia books thanks to a faux sales lead. She spent the rest of the morning arguing with someone on the phone, saying something about not identifying the handwriting of an eleven-year-old.
As an adult who spends too much real money on virtual goods, I'm still surprised about the stories of "children" abusing their parents' Visas and buying a lot of nothing — presumably virtual gold coins to speed up timers. It's like IAP are today's equivalent of mail order Encyclopaedias.
Look at the picture and those sad faces. It couldn't get more sensationalist than that. Last week I took that shot to remind me that real printer newspapers are reporting the "outrageous" abuses of the App Store micropayment system. The news broke after someone reported an eight-year-old spent a grand on virtual currency. As the story developed, the culprit was revealed: EA's Tapped Out. I was betting on Candy Crush Saga latest freemium craze, making me was secretly disappointed. These eight-year-olds weren't around when there was a true Smurfberry disaster so I feel the duty to write once again about it.
An avoidable disaster
Kids love iOS devices; parents load them with credit card numbers. When you set up a device for the first time, you're required to enter your Apple ID. This account will be associated with the payment method you have previously used to buy a laptop, for example. You actually get a prompt to reconfirm that the billing details are correct every now and then, so the connection between my iTunes account and my credit card should be clear.
There are accidents that can happen from this ease of purchase — one click ordering as Amazon likes to put it. The other day I was downloading Convertible again to check out the latest update and accidentally swiped right and purchased this Super Girls Pink Convertible — no kidding. That was clearly unintentional but I was charged for it. Then there are charges made to adult's credit cards from, allegedly, the younger members of the family.
"Theo, eight, spends £1,000 on extras for a Simpsons iPad game"
For the gaming world this is a clear example of a whale; a user hooked to a free to play game who spends way more money than the majority. And because apps have become part of popular culture, what better than highlighting these in a newspaper article. Despite the multiple typos, including the incorrect name of the game, the writer decides to call "extras" some random virtual goods.
Anything to learn from virtual farming?
A free game that follows a farming mechanic, forcing the user to wait and check in the app multiple times a day, is clearly designed to trigger compulsive buying instincts. A mind-numbing test of patience to see how long can you endure the boredom before paying to progress.
As a parent, seeing your children compulsively checking their iPod touches should trigger an alert. Peek at the screen and see how they tap randomly on timers to collect coins. Video games are about replaying levels, excitement and fun, not about watching a clock count every second.
If you're still fine with this type of entertainment, you can also consider securing the payment method on your account. There's a way to disable in-app-purchases on the device in a hidden settings menu. I recommend you consider this option as a starting point and keep the four-digit passcode secret. Apple provides a basic guide to protect your children and keep your credit card details safe.