Blog Post

In-App Purchases and The Smurfberry Affair

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

Not all is fun and games in the App Store(s aapl), especially in some freemium titles, where children are racking up credit card charges via in-app purchases of various game add-ons. One little girl cost mom and dad $1,400 in virtual “Smurfberries,” and it wasn’t even one of Gargamel’s plots. Apple is reportedly looking in to changing the 15-minute window that allowed this to happen, but in my opinion, they can’t move fast enough to address this serious loophole in App Store policy.

I don’t blame the kids for this problem. In-game money equating to real world currency is a relatively recent phenomenon. Those gold coins you get in the Mario series do not add up to real dollars and cents. Kids don’t always have the skill to understand the intricacies of commerce and fantasy. The U.S. government recognizes this vulnerability and has laws in place to protect against it, such as The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and the Children’s Television Act. Content providers must generally take measures to make sure parental permission is given for access to websites, and that clear distinctions are made between programming and advertising. The same kind of care should be taken with regards to the App Store.

I also don’t blame the parents. Apps that could have material not suited for children display clear warnings during purchase.  But purchasing a game geared towards children that could give your wallet an unexpected hit via in-app purchase don’t require such a warning. Parents initially type in their password to download a game, but may not be aware of the existence of the 15-minute window in which Apple (wrongfully, in my opinion) allows additional purchases. How many of us have been in a situation where we need to entertain a child and quickly buy an app and then hand over the phone for some simple babysitting?

Game developers definitely deserve some of the blame. You don’t need to be Brainy Smurf to figure out that a $99.00 in-app purchase on a game geared towards children is a recipe for trouble. However, developers are in the business of making money, and they’ll push the limits when they can, so long as it doesn’t incur too much ill will among the buying public.

Apple takes 30% of the revenue from an in-app purchase, but deserves at least 70% of the blame for this ongoing problem. The company needs to eliminate completely the grace period after entering one’s password. I can specify how long until my screen locks on both Mac and iOS devices. However, on iOS, Apple gives no warning when you buy an app or make an in-app purchase that your account will remain open to other purchases for the next several minutes without requiring re-authentication, and provides no way to change or disable this window. This is a recipe for trouble.

Apple also needs to reconsider its ratings and warning system. Smurfs’ Village is only rated 4+, for example.  Any game that allows in-app purchases should have a specific warning to help parents know that the game may not be not child-friendly due to potential accidental in-app purchases. While Capcom has put a warning in the description of the app, other programs have not done so. That should be required in the App Store and displayed under other content warnings.

Finally, Apple really needs to allow user accounts or profiles like it does in OS X. While iPhones tend to be used by only one individual, iPads and iPod touches are often shared among family members. I should be able to hand my iPad or iPhone to a youngster and have a full suite of parental controls and lockouts available by simply logging out of my profile and logging into a kid-friendly one.

Until such changes are made, here are a few tips to prevent in-app sticker shock:

  1. Set up a separate Apple ID for a child for which you might purchase apps and don’t associate your credit card with this account. Use either a gift card or Apple’s iTunes Store allowance to fund the account. This will limit the spending potential for accidental purchases.
  2. Turn off in-app purchases globally by going to Settings>General>Restrictions. Once you set a passcode to enable restrictions, you can turn off in-app purchasing.
  3. After making a purchase, sign out of your iTunes account by going to Settings>Store>Sign Out.

While Apple appears to be sympathetic to parents who have been victimized by in-app purchases, often offering refunds to those who complain, the fundamental flaw still exists. Until Apple provides a more satisfactory solution, it’s up to parents to remain vigilant and follow the steps outlined above.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub. req.):

12 Responses to “In-App Purchases and The Smurfberry Affair”

  1. I got my iPhone at the start of the year. Downloaded a heap of ‘free’ game apps at the time, and have been slowly going through them, buying ones I like. I downloaded the Smurf game, but haven’t ever opened it. My 2year old has started liking to play with the phone, and knows how to open and click around.

    I hadn’t realised Smurfs had in-app purchases until a $60 charge hit me. I hadn’t turned off in-app purchases, because I’m still playing with the phone, not investigating all the settings, plus I didn’t realise it would be an issue as I assumed it would required the iTunes password. However I had done an UPDATE ALL APPS, which was running in the background, and obviously a big one was still updating when she got her hands on the phone.

    Fingers are crossed that my email to Apple gets me a refund.

  2. “How many of us have been in a situation where we need to entertain a child and quickly buy an app and then hand over the phone for some simple babysitting?”

    No only does that statement fully explain who is at fault here, it says a mouthful about what is wrong in America today.

  3. My daugther uses the smurf app almost daily on her ipad. And while is her ipad it sync to my itunes account so to my cc too.

    I know better so I set the settings correctlly. I have never paid for a single in-app purchase.

    The app have many Warnings in place. So for me the blame falls 100% in the parents.

  4. Cold Water

    Phones are definitely a single-user experience, and I see no reason to change that.

    The problem hasn’t been solved on any other OS, but as a thought, if you’re familiar with SBSettings or Android, “guest mode” could be an easy toggle, just like WiFi or Bluetooth, that disables iTunes purchases, puts Safari in Private Browsing, locks system prefs, etc. until you enter the iTunes password.

  5. Nighthawk1973

    Something is wrong here. The parents are responsible for their children. If you let them play with an 600 dollar iPad you must now how it works! Do not blame Apple for making the AppStore so easy accessible.

    In mine opinion parents are way to easy with their children! They could use iTunes giftcards, or log-out!
    If you give your child your pin number of à bankcard you know it’s asking for trouble. Don’t give it!

  6. airmanchairman

    Excellent, superb suggestions for this unexpected problem, especially the first tip.

    Your suggestions also reveal that multiple user accounts already exist for iDevices – in iTunes. The problems arise when iDevice owners allow others to use them while logged in as the current account owner.

    The only alternative to your tips would involve creating extra “nag-screens” after rebooting an iDevice or unlocking its screen after it has been dormant for a while, which may run counter to Apple’s simplicity of use philosophy.

    But thanks for the excellent heads-up on what could be a sticky wicket – too right you are that developers will try and “push the envelope” as much as they can, but they can be stopped right in their tracks.

  7. Two things:

    The first sentence of the smurf app description is a warning about in-app purchases.

    Secondly, in-app purchases can be disabled under Settings -> General -> Restrictions.

    While I wouldn’t argue that Apple and content publishers are without blame – warnings and restrictions can and should be better surfaced to users – it seems to me that assigning them the majority of the blame when these safeguards exist is unfair.

    The parents failed to heed the warning. They deserve the majority of the blame.

  8. “15-minute window in which Apple (wrongfully, in my opinion) allows additional purchases.”

    I find that to be essential. I don’t use the Update All button when updating my apps, as some of them are large and will fail every time on the device itself. I wouldn’t want to input my password for every single item.

    I think this blame falls 100% on the developers. Perhaps Apple should amend their developer agreement to prevent obvious “credit card bait” apps. Or parents could get a clue and use the parental controls, which explicitly allow you to disable in-app purchases.

  9. I was caught in the smurfberry fiasco when my six year old grandson bought $120 worth of berries. I called apple tech support and they didn’t even try to help me. They said the ap is a 3rd party ap and they aren’t responsible, after first telling me that I really wasn’t eligible for support because I my ipad was purchased in August and it was already December. I got on Capcom’s website to complain but the site wasn’t looking for anything like a complaint…..and try emailing to complain through itunes. They’re happy to take our money but in no hurry to make something like this right.
    More recently I made a purchase at an Apple store. When I got their customer satisfaction survey I expressed my “berries” complaint there. Not expecting a response.

  10. Papa Smurf

    Excellent title to this article. This is exactly how tencent in China makes billions, kids+transactions. What about in-website transactions? Just kidding. I think the company that controls search access to all these apps just like Google controls search n discover access to websites is the real winner in the end.