‘Free’ iPhone apps can run up big bills

Forums around the web reportedly contain complaints from users that game apps targeted at children have charged hefty fees for unexpected in-app payments, according to a PC Pro news story.

One such app is the game, Tap Zoo. It’s free to download but allows users to buy virtual money for use within the game in order to access extra features or get to the next level faster. But every virtual money purchase costs the user money in real life, via an iTunes in-app purchase.

The value of such in-app purchases is evident from the fact that Tap Zoo ranks in the top five grossing iPhone apps, despite being free to download. Another ‘free’ game that features in the top five grossing iPhone apps is Smurf Village. Which? has found that it, too, has received forum complaints of unexpected bills.

Game apps like Tap Zoo and Smurf Village are often aimed at children, and complaints often come from parents upset that their kids have been able to run up huge bills without sufficient default checks in place to prevent this.

Apple does place clear warnings on its App Store for apps that allow in-app purchases, and recommends users disable in-app purchases on their device if they want to block this feature. However, this relies on users reading the app information.

To avoid the risk of you or your children inadvertently making costly in-app purchases, turn off the ability to make in-app purchases (this feature is turned on by default).

To turn off the in-app purchases feature:

1) Click on the settings icon of your device
2) Select ‘General’
3) Select ‘Restrictions’
4) Click ‘Enable restrictions’
5) Enter a four digit restrictions passcode of your choice
6) Scroll down the screen and switch ‘In-App purchases’ to ‘Off’.

You might also be interested in:

Finding out more about smartphone apps
Smartphone security advice

Categories: Apps

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6 replies

  1. This is SO TYPICAL of greddy hi-tech companies who pray on young people. If these companies operated with any degree of integrity then they would set the default to “off” and require a positive verification before allowing it to be turned “on”.

  2. Parents should not be buying children mobiles which use apps. They are entirely responsible. Don’t blame companies for trying to make money!!

  3. Any adult who pays out ‘real’ money to get ‘virtual’ money is, to be frank, so stupid that they are not worthy of any sympathy.

    Any adult who buys an iPhone for their child is so stupid and/or rich (the cheapest iPhones cost around £850 over the life of the contract) that they are not worthy of any sympathy.

  4. I completely agree that parents should take responsibility for their child’s mobile phone use, and whenever we at Which? Mobile are asked, our advice is always that the best mobile option for kids is PAYG and a simple handset. In my opinion, giving your child an expensive, high spec contract phone is a potential recipe for disaster.

    That said, a lot of the complaints on this particular issue have come from parents who’ve given their own phones to their children temporarily to keep them amused. While I still think that the mobile user has responsibility to ensure that appropriate controls are set, it can be difficult for consumers to keep up with the way technology is changing and its potential pitfalls. Manufacturers and retailers could do more to flag these pitfalls and highlight what we can do to avoid being caught out.

    1. You are, indeed, right, Ceri. However, you state “Manufacturers and retailers could do more to flag these pitfalls and highlight what we can do to avoid being caught out” yet your(?) article points out “Apple does place clear warnings on its App Store…” Let’s be reasonable here, there does come a point where grown adults must take responsibility for their actions. And the statement “However, this relies on users reading the app information” beggars belief.

      If I may add a third paragraph to my comment above:

      Any adult who does read the “clear warnings on the App Store” is so stupid that they are not worthy of any sympathy.

  5. Parents should not have to worry about exploitation by apple and the app developers of children. How can it be right to target children with virtual nonsense that cost huge amounts of real money. For any human being that does not see this is wrong then you indeed are the ones that need help.

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