(The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed
are his own.)
By Mitch Lipka
March 31 Although Seana Mulcahy considers
herself tech savvy, she was thrown a bit when her 8-year-old son
Logan not once, but twice, ran up charges using apps downloaded
from Apple Inc's online iTunes store.
The first time, he downloaded a free game and ended up
spending about $60 before Mulcahy, 42, an internet advertising
and marketing executive from Andover, Massachusetts, received a
notification of the charges a couple of days later.
Then a few weeks ago while using a gift card, Logan made six
in-app purchases of tokens which far exceeded the gift card's
Yet Mulcahy says she closely monitors her son's Internet
usage and specifically approved his use of those games as well
as only using his $20 gift card on the second go-round.
"If this is happening to me, clearly this is happening to
other people who are clueless about what their kids are doing,"
APPLE STEPS IN
Indeed, she is hardly alone. Apple this week emailed iTunes
users to let them know they could be eligible for refunds for
such errant purchases and to emphasize how to prevent them from
happening going forward.
"We've heard from some customers that it was too easy for
their kids to make in-app purchases," Apple wrote. "As a result,
we've improved controls for parents so they can better manage
their children's purchases, or restrict them entirely.
Additionally, we are offering refunds in certain cases."
The email asks parents to check their iTunes purchases to
see if any of the charges were made by a minor without their
authorization. The deadline for filing for a refund is April 15,
Apple made the offer under the terms of a settlement earlier
this year with the Federal Trade Commission in which the company
agreed to refund at least $32.5 million to consumers. The
settlement also required Apple to change its billing practices
to ensure purchases made while using an app have "informed
consent from consumers."
Apple did not respond to requests for comment about the
email and eligibility for the refunds.
The company last year settled a class-action lawsuit on the
same issue. In an email to Apple employees following the FTC
settlement, chief executive officer Tim Cook said the company
had already sent emails to 28 million customers who filed 37,000
Apple has denied wrongdoing in the settlements of both
At the heart of the FTC's complaint against Apple is the
allegation the company did not explain to parents that when they
entered their password to enable a single transaction, they were
effectively opening the door for the next 15 minutes for
additional transactions that would be then charged to the
parent's account. In a recent update to Apple's operating
system, users are now shown a pop-up that explains the 15-minute
window and offers an opportunity to change the settings.
The FTC said Apple had received tens of thousands of
complaints about unauthorized purchases, including one for
$2,600 on the "Tap Pet Hotel" app. Other consumers complained
that their children spent $500 or more on other child-oriented
apps, the FTC said.
WHAT TO DO
Lynette Owens, global director of security firm Trend Micro
Inc's Internet Safety for Kids and Families program,
says parents need most of all to be aware of the potential for
charges. Parents need to make their children aware, but they
also need to prepare for surprises and tricks.
"Even for parents who are more aware, app developers have
gotten more creative in enticing you to keep spending," says
Owens recommends parents disable in-app purchasing, require
a password every time a charge is to be made or limit the use of
the account to only iTunes gift cards that are purchased to
avoid excessive charges.
Similar steps should be also taken with other mobile apps,
including those available from Google Inc's Google Play
To do this on Apple devices, users can tap "Settings" and
then under the "General" tab, click on "Restrictions," where
limits can be placed and special passwords created to avoid
accidental purchases. On an Android device, tap on the Google
Play icon and go to "settings" to set it to require manually
entering a password for all purchases.
The refund offer will come as welcome news for some parents.
Mulcahy, for one, plans to ask Apple for a refund.
But other parents may not jump at the chance. Kipp
Jarecke-Cheng, 44, of Maplewood, New Jersey, said he has
accepted that an errant purchase made two years ago by his son
Beckett, then 5, was his own fault.
"It was a nearly hundred-dollar lesson for me to learn about
disabling in-app purchases on my son's iPad," he said.
(Editing by Beth Pinsker and G Crosse)