5 tools to prevent your kids from blowing your money on iTunes’ in-app purchases

A post I wrote last week about parents discovering that their kids had racked up thousands of dollars of in-app purchases generated a bunch of comments. Some parents said they have little control over what their kids are buying on iTunes, or what they’re tapping on their mobile screens. They feel powerless in the face of “free” games like Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga that entice kids with “power-ups” at price points as high as $99.

But in fact, as more than one commenter pointed out, there are a handful of tools that can help families rein in their kids’ iTunes purchases — both in-game and at the store — and many are available right on devices themselves. You just have to know where to look.

Here are five things that you can do in the next five minutes that significantly reduce the chances of your son or daughter tapping away hundreds (or thousands) of dollars. And when you’re ready to remove the controls, you can reverse them just as quickly as you implemented them. Of course, these measures apply to iOS devices only, but Android, Blackberry and Windows Phone also have applicable parental controls — consult the settings on your device to get the most accurate information.

1. Set Restrictions to Turn Off In-App PurchasesiPhoneRestrictionsApp

In-app purchases of any sort can be disabled on any Apple device with a couple of quick swipes in Settings. First, click the “General” subsection — once inside, you’ll see an area marked “Restrictions.” The device will then prompt you to make a special Restrictions passcode, which can (and should) be different from the phone’s lock screen, if a PIN password has already been enabled.

Once active, Restrictions can actually eliminate access to certain apps and filter content available in the iTunes store. In this “Allowed content” tab, you can find a simple toggle for “In-App Purchases.” Flip that to “off,” and all in-app purchases will be verboten.

If for any reason you would like to make an in-app purchase, simply flip the toggle back to “on,” and the Restrictions can be reset or changed at any time.

2. Require Passwords for Every Purchase

iPhoneRestrictionsPasswordCurrently, Apple requires users to input a password to purchase if the account hasn’t been active for 15 minutes. But it’s easy to switch the phone’s protocol to require a password every single time a purchase is made.

This option also exists in the Restrictions tab, right below where In-App Purchases can be turned on or off. Click “Require Password” and set it to “Immediately” — from then on any purchase will need a password.

3. Set an Allowance through iTunes

iTunesAllowanceIf a child has access to his or her own iDevice and the parents can’t easily monitor usage — for example, a teenager with a smartphone — there is an easy way to give them the independence they crave without worrying about a crazy phone bill. Apple actually allows you to set a monthly iTunes allowance.

To activate an allowance system, go to iTunes on your computer and make sure that you’re logged into the username you want to handle the payments. Go to the iTunes store and click “Send iTunes Gifts,” which will open up a dialog box to send an iTunes gift card electronically to someone. Click “Learn More About Gifting” in the bottom left corner of the dialog box, and you will be taken to a landing page that explains different options. Scroll down, and the iTunes Allowance Program will appear.

To use the iTunes Allowance Program, select a recipient’s Apple ID (or create one if it’s the child’s first device), and choose a monthly allowance — anywhere from $10 to $50 per month. Each payment will happen at the first of the month, and can be managed only from the parents’ Apple ID account settings screen.

4. Check for In-App Purchases Before Download

ClashofClansPurchasesWhile many games rely on micro-transactions for their revenue, not all mobile games have them. If you want to be vigilant about making sure your kids aren’t exposed to free games that are designed to get them to pay up, it’s easy to check if a game has in-app purchases.

Simply type the name of the game into the iTunes search bar (or Google, if you prefer to check many at once), and look at the game’s overview screen. There will usually be a “Top In-App Purchases” tab — click on it and you will get a list of what the game offers for sale in the app. There are some games with limited purchase options, usually downloadable content that expands the game or “upgrades” it to a paid version from a free title. But games that rely on transactions have predictably tiered purchases of $4.99, $9.99, $19.99, $49.99 and $99.99.

If you see those tiers in the Top In-App Purchases tab, it’s a free-to-play game that you may want to avoid.

5. Remove Your Credit Card Number

It’s a common misconception that iTunes requires a credit card for every Apple ID, especially because the company pressures new users to commit with a credit card so quickly. Apple doesn’t require a credit card to run iTunes or purchase apps through the phone.

To remove a credit card from an account, simply log in to the account on the computer’s version of iTunes (make sure it is the most up-to-date version) and select the “Account” link. From there, select “Edit Payment Information,” which will show “Payment Type” at the top of the page. Simply select the “None” option from that list, and all credit-card information will be wiped away.

The account can still be funded via iTunes gift cards, which you can buy as needed via iTunes or in a card at most major retailers.

A final piece of advice to wary parents: Keep your password secret. While it may seem much easier just to give your child the password — so you’re not fielding the question from them every time they want to download something — keeping the password means keeping the power. Inputting the password manually gives you an opportunity to see what your kids are trying to download, and what the reviews of the game say. That prevents unwittingly downloading poor games designed to force micro-transactions on users, and it keeps you up to date on what the latest game trends are.

The tools to restrict in-app purchases exist –it’s just a matter of using them.