Beware of Apple 'bait apps'

Apple is to face a lawsuit in the United States from angry parents who have seen their children rack up huge bills by downloading so-called ‘bait-apps’ from iTunes. And this is something I have first-hand experience of as my six-year-old ran up a bill of nearly £200 on my iTunes account by doing exactly that.

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So if you find yourself in this unfortunate position, can you claim your money back and, if so, how do you go about it?…

What’s the story?

Apple has come under heavy criticism from parents who have accused the company of allowing children to spend money on iTunes through ‘bait-apps’ – game applications that are free to download but then push secondary, in-game purchases, to unlock various features or use as currency while playing the game.

A group of parents in the US have been so angered by this that they have filed a Class Action Complaint lawsuit against Apple on the grounds that children have been able to purchase ‘game currencies’ without their parents’ knowledge or permission while playing game applications (apps) that are advertised as ‘free’.

This has largely been down to Apple’s in-app purchase system. It originally included a 15-minute ‘window’ after the password was entered during which further purchases could be made without re-entering the password.

This means that parents who entered their iTunes password to enable their children to download the original (free) app were unknowingly leaving their account open for up to 15 minutes for further in-app purchases costing as much as £70 each.

Apple has now amended its in-app purchase system so that in-app purchases require re-entry of the password but, in spite of this and other attempts by Apple to have the case dismissed, a San Jose judge has upheld most of the charges and the lawsuit can now go ahead as planned.

For sale: Smurfberries @ £70 per wagonload

One particular game that has come in for heavy criticism is “The Smurf’s Village”. This is a role-playing game based upon the popular cartoon characters that is free to download but then encourages the purchase of ‘Smurfberries’ to progress within the game.

On the face of it, this may not sound like such a big deal, but when you consider that just one of these in-game purchases can cost as much as £70 then you can appreciate how it can quickly become a major one.

And this is where my story begins as James, my six-year-old son, was playing The Smurf’s Village on his iPod and promptly ran up a bill of around £188.24. I say promptly because this was done within 15 minutes of me entering my iTunes password so he could download the free app.

Now you could say that it’s my own stupid fault for typing in my password and letting my son loose with his iPod and, to a certain degree, you’d be right. In addition, a few simple tweaks to the settings and this whole thing could have been completely averted.

And although I was not aware of the 15-minute purchasing window, I appreciate the rationale behind it for users who wished to download multiple items without have to re-enter their password every time, for instance, when purchasing songs or albums.

My real concern was with the fact that just one app, in this instance a wagonload of Smurfberries, could cost as much as £70.

This is something that seems even more absurd, when you consider that it was in an app designed specifically for children who will have no concept of the true value of money (if you need any convincing of this check out some of the answers given in this video).

And I was neither in the mood nor the financial position to fork out nearly £200 on in-app purchases even if, between us, my son and I were now the proud owners of more Smurfberries than we knew what to do with!

How to get your money back

I’m glad to say that, to get my money back, I have not had to file a Class Action lawsuit, nor have I had to go along to Apple HQ armed with a menacing look and a sock full of pool balls. I simply contacted Apple customer service explaining my situation and they resolved the matter pretty promptly.

So, if you have found yourself in a similar position then you need to contact Apple as soon as possible (I’d recommend you do this via post and email), and outline exactly what has happened.

You should include details of all transactions that were made by your child, including how much each purchase cost as well as the web order numbers, which you can find in your iTunes purchase history. If you are unsure how to find your iTunes purchase history, then follow these instructions.

I found Apple to be very receptive to my complaint and the money was refunded to the bank account connected to my iTunes account within a few days.

If the purchases were made via a credit or debit card attached to your iTunes account then you could also try to reclaim the money via section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974, which holds credit card companies jointly liable with traders in the case of fraudulent purchases, or via chargeback.

Although my money was refunded with no fuss, Apple was also keen to point out that this would be a one-off refund and in future the onus would be on me to prevent the same thing happening again.

And they even gave me a few pointers on how to change the settings on my son’s iPod so he never had the opportunity to add to his burgeoning Smurfberry collection.

How to stop this from happening to you

Although Apple has amended the 15-minute window for in-app purchases there are other steps you should take to ensure that this doesn’t happen to you.

One obvious piece of advice is not to give your children access to your password and make sure that it is secure enough that they cannot guess it. It’s nice to think that you can trust your children but, as I found out, even the most trustworthy can easily get into trouble.

You should also ensure that iTunes store warnings are always displayed before completing a purchase and set up content restrictions via Settings > General > Restrictions. Doing this will also ensure that they are not exposed to any unsuitable content.

It may also be a good idea to set up an iTunes account specifically for your child and perhaps connect this to a prepaid card so you can top up the allowance as and when required and there is no risk of running up hundreds of pounds worth of bills on your account.

Of course, you could also just take the offending iPod away from your child. But where’s the fun in that?

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