Kids, Tech

5 Tips for Protecting Yourself and Your Kids from “Free” Children’s Games on the iPhone or iPad

iOS devices are great for kids. They’re easy to use, and there are a bevy of solid educational apps that children can understand and use without a tremendous amount of effort. They’re also a great way to introduce children to computing, and give them something (at times) constructive to do in those life moments where they need a distraction.

That being said, make sure you closely watch the apps that your children are using. In the past, a number of apps that have shown up as free downloads in the App Store have ended up surprising parents with large credit card charges later via the use of in-app purchases.

This problem has impacted parents even in some of the more popular free apps – perhaps most highly visible in the “Smurf’s Village” game that generated a number of news stories a couple of years ago.  For background on this story, click any of the links below.

Smurf’s Village certainly isn’t the only app in the App Store to employ this deceitful money-making strategy. As it’s been successful, more and more app makers have attempted to profit through the in-app purchases of unknowing users.

Never, though, have I seen this strategy taken to as egregious extremes as in the app “Super Monster Bros by Adventure Time Pocket Free Games” (yes, that’s the actual name of the app).

To see for yourself how far this game takes things, take a few minutes to watch the following game review.  The reviewers walk through the game, and you’ll see for yourself how each it would be for a child to end up spending a lot of money without being aware of it.

Tips for Protecting Yourself and Your Child

Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take to protect yourself and your child from mistaken purchases.

1. Regularly monitor the apps that your child is using. If they share an iTunes account with you, you can see a list of purchased apps at any time by launch the App Store on your iOS device, and clicking on “Updates>Purchased”.  You’ll see a list of the apps purchased and installed across devices in this list.

2. Even if an app is listed as free, check in to it to determine whether it supports in-app purchasing. A good way to get a feel for the integrity of the app is to look over the app reviews to see what others are saying about the app. In addition to this, it’s also a good idea to see if the more popular apps show up in the “Top Grossing” list of apps in the app-store.  If an app is listed as free, yet still shows up in the “Top Grossing” app list, then you can safely assume it’s making a lot of profit from the in-app purchases being sold in the game. You can find the list of top-grossing apps by launching the app store on your iOS device, clicking the “Top Charts” link at the bottom, and scrolling all the way down to find the list of top-grossing apps.

3. If your child is using their own iTunes account, rather than tying it to your credit card, you can use an iTunes gift card to setup and fund the AppleID associated with the device.  Purchase a low-value iTunes card to get the account setup. Once the gift card value has been used, any attempts to make any kind of purchase on the account will generate a request for refunding. This greatly limits your exposure to abuse from unscrupulous developers.

4. Enable restrictions to prevent in-app purchasing. iOS allows you to restrict what activities are allowed on a per-device basis via the “Settings” app.  Launch the “Settings” app on the iOS device that you want to control, and click “General>Restrictions”. By default, all restrictions are turned off – so the first thing you need to do is click the “Enable Restrictions” button at the top of this page. Once you’ve clicked that, you’ll be asked to provide and confirm a four digit passcode that will be used in the future to access the device restrictions.  Once your passcode has been entered, scroll down to the “Allowed Content” section of the restrictions panel and toggle “In-App Purchases” to off.  Once you’ve done this, attempts to make purchases within any app – even accidentally – will simply present a notice that in-app purchases have been disable on this device.  If you find you need to make legitimate in-app purchases in the future, turning this off is as simple as visiting the restrictions app again and changing the toggle.

5. If you find that you’ve been accidentally bilked out of money through mistaken in-app purchases, make sure to dispute the charges with Apple. While Apple’s policy states that all purchases are final, there have been many reports of users who have had success having charges reversed when it’s clear that an app is abusing the in-app purchase system. It’s worth trying to get charges reversed if you’ve had this happen to you. To start the process, launch iTunes on your computer, and click the iTunes Store icon or button (depending on your version of iTunes). Once in the iTunes store, click on your account name, and choose “Account” from the list that appears. Under “Purchase History”, click “See All”, and find the app in this list that generated the charges. Click the small gray arrow next to the app name, and choose “Report a Problem” from the menu that appears. You’ll be taken to the “Report a Problem” page where you can select “I inadvertently purchased this app”.  Enter comments about the abusive in-app purchase charges, and ask that the charges be reversed before you hit “Submit”.


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