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Freemium apps: How to avoid being stuffed by digital gems

Stories of parents being stung with huge bills for in-app buys are worrying. So, do these 'freemium' apps need to clean up their game or do we need to wise up? Laura Davis reports

Most of us have been left open-mouthed in shock after receiving a hefty phone bill – usually after a few too many late-night calls on a trip abroad or a an unwitting mobile call to a utility company's 0845 number.

But the last few weeks have seen an explosion in complaints about huge bills for items such as virtual doughnuts, food mountains and gems for ponies. With bill-payers often unaware they'd bought them.

I'm a gaming addict and because I'm on the go a lot, the most mobile way of getting my fix is via the iPhone. I've felt frustrated several times when a request has popped up to upgrade the game, unlock a level or buy virtual products. As addictive as they can be, it's me who has to foot the bill for these extras and it makes the decision to stop playing a game that charges a bit easier. That's the downside of being a grown-up gamer.

For children, the fear of hefty bills is not as immediate a concern and more and more parents are being left out of pocket as a result.

Earlier this year, twice-capped England rugby player Sam Vesty revealed he was caught out by Tiny Monsters, a game where players could purchase a "mountain of food" for £69.99 a pop. Those monsters must have been hungry, as he discovered his two sons had purchased 54 of these on his iPhone in under three hours – with a bill of £3,200 to boot.

Five-year-old Danny Kitchen from Bristol, meanwhile, ran up a £1,700 bill playing Zombie Vs Ninjas on his family's iPad. Another case was exposed last week, when eight-year-old Theo Rowland-Fry ran up a £1,000 bill buying virtual doughnuts on The Simpsons game Tapped Out on his iPad.

His father, Nick Rowland-Fry, only realised there was a problem when his panicked wife rang him to ask where all their money had gone. After receiving a statement, she saw that there were more than 100 purchases on iTunes for between £1.50 and £75.

Like other parents who have been stung, Rowland-Fry thinks it was too easy for children to buy additional items. "You can download a free app, but then you get pop-ups to upgrade the game – my son didn't have to put in a password and didn't get any confirmation," he says.

Although he comments Apple was very helpful in issuing a refund, Rowland-Fry thinks steps should be taken to prevent this happening to other parents: "It was a huge shock when we saw the bill," he said. "I was cross, but not with him especially. The game was leading; the carrot was dangled – or the doughnut in this instance," he said. "Apple and iTunes should have a more secure way to stop this happening. Or at least alert people after a certain amount has been spent. £1,000-worth of doughnuts and I didn't get to eat a single one."

Complaints about children accessing smartphone apps increased a whopping 300 per cent last year, according to PhonepayPlus, the UK regulator of premium-rate telephone services. With so many games providers opting for free download, companies choose to make money via in-app purchasing – where an initially free app charges for extras once it is downloaded.

It's a particular risk to children, as many of these games are either marketed at or popular with kids. To them, it's very different from the reality of buying a toy in a shop as they aren't getting a tangible product to hold.

Those who aren't parents might argue that the responsibility lies squarely with the guardian, but as Rowland-Fry, says: "You can monitor them to a degree, but you can't sit with them at every step."

Online consumer finance site MoneySavingExpert.com recently exposed the My Little Pony mobile and tablet game, which encourages players to spend nearly £70 on "virtual gems".

Founder Martin Lewis says these games are simply irresponsible: "It's pretty clear-cut that the My Little Pony app is not aimed at adults. This is a specific children's game and the fact it encourages children to spend £69.99 at a time on a 'mountain of gems' is disgusting and immoral."

According to parenting technology-advice site Quib.Ly, 80 per cent of parents feel that app developers should be held to account for "freemium" games that encourage children to make in-app purchases.

Its editor-in-chief, Holly Seddon, says, "Our parents believe games developers are the guilty parties for trying to tap in to the sensitivity of children through the freemium model."

So how can games providers get away with featuring pricey add-ons aimed at children?

According to PhonepayPlus, the number one issue parents complain about is unexpectedly high-bills or 'bill shock'.

Although there is a cap on services paid for by phone and aimed at children, the problem lies when extra charges are incurred through credit-card charges or via the iTunes store – which won't technically come out of your phone bill.

Martyn Landi, writer at KnowYourApps.com, points out that "many parents don't realise that a password entry stays active for 15 minutes on an iPhone or iPad". With the majority of apps now featuring in-app purchases, that's potentially one hell of a lot of doughnuts if you hand it straight over to a child.

Don't get jewelled again

Whoever the responsibility lies with, if parents do decide to give their child a smartphone or tablet, or let them use theirs, they will ultimately be the ones footing the bill. If you don't want an innocent game to turn into a financial nightmare, here's how to make sure those pesky 'freemium' apps don't outsmart you:

1. If your child is using your smartphone/iPad – don't let them know your password/pin.

2. Before you give your child a phone, register it as a child's phone with your network and talk to them about the controls available (pay-as-you-go account or blocking certain services).

3. Highlight the risks of online spending to your children.

4. Restrict in-app purchases with a password/pin.

5. Use www.phonebrain.org – an interactive website about safe phone use for children and parents.

6. If it has happened to you, contact your mobile provider and explain the situation – they might refund as a gesture of goodwill.

7. If after contacting your provider, you still have concerns about purchases and your phone bill, contact PhonepayPlus on 0800 500 212 or at phonepayplus.org.uk