On Jan. 17, Apple signed a consent order with the Federal Trade Commission to refund at least $32.5 million to peeved parents whose kids had shopped unsupervised in the iTunes App Store. According to the FTC, Apple failed to warn parents that by entering a password, they weren’t just approving a single in-app purchase but were also letting their children make unlimited purchases for 15 minutes without further parental permission.
It turns out, the other giant app store, Google Play, also offers unsupervised children an opportunity to shop unfettered by parental oversight—and for a full 30 minutes.
(Learn how to control in-app purchases on Apple devices. And if your kid went on a Google Play Store shopping spree, find out how to get a refund.)
How in-app costs can skyrocket
In its complaint against Apple, the FTC noted that one parent of a young Apple user reported that her daughter had spent $2,600 in the Tap Pet Hotel game from Pocket Gems. So I installed the Android version of that game on an Android tablet by downloading it free from the Google Play Store. Having previously enabled the store’s password protection feature (using the Google Play app’s Settings), I approved one in-app purchase of a Bunch of Treats for 99 cents, just as any soft-hearted parent might do.
As you can see below, there was no indication on the screen that I had approved anything but that 99 cent purchase.
Morphing from Doting Dad to mischievous child, I then entered the Pet Hotel unsupervised, where I spent the next 30 minutes making seven more 99 cent in-app purchases of Treats or Coins, all without any further authorization. Just tap and spend. (Sometime during that period I indulged in a spontaneous detour from the game to the Play Store and tacked on an unauthorized purchase of an unrelated app for $2.99—just because I could.) Total cost of my spending spree: $9.92.
My childlike binge came to an abrupt halt when Google Play’s 30-minute time limit on unauthorized purchases kicked in, after which the Play Store once again required a password in order to buy anything.
Why this matters to you
So what’s the big deal? With the same few taps, an unsupervised child could just as easily have bought some Trove of Coins for $49.99 each, or maybe a bunch of Barrel of Treats for $99.99 apiece (shown, below) and run up a bill rivaling that of the girl whose mother had complained to the FTC.
An FTC representative declined to comment on whether the agency has received complaints about such occurrences in Google Play or whether the FTC might be investigating the store.
In its agreement with the FTC, Apple also consented to changing its billing practices, no later than March 31, so that it gets consumers’ express, informed consent before billing them for in-app charges.
Given my experience, the Google Play app should also be required to give parents explicit notice and get similar consent from parents of children who access the Google Play Store.
For now, if you supervise a youngster who uses apps downloaded from the Google Play store, exercise caution when approving any in-app, or even out-of-app, purchases. Unless you trust the child, don’t hand the device back to her until the 30 minutes expire and a password is once again required.
“We always appreciate feedback and are currently working on new features that give our customers even more information and control over their Google Play purchases," a Google spokesperson told me in an e-mail sent on the night of Jan. 17.*
When we published this story at 3:40 p.m. ET on Jan. 17, no one from Google had contacted Consumer Reports.
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