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 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, 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 – 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

Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Arts and Entertainment
Game Of Thrones
Uh-oh, winter is coming. Ouch, my eyes! Ygritte’s a goner. Lysa’s a goner. Tywin’s a goner. Look, a dragon
tvSpoiler warning:The British actor says viewers have 'not seen the last' of his character
The Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City
premier league

The Independent's live blog of today's Premier League action

Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: 'Time Heist' sees a darker side to Peter Capaldi's Doctor
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Graduate BI Consultant (Business Intelligence) - London

    £24000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Graduate BI Consultant (B...

    Service Delivery Manager (Product Manager, Test and Deployment)

    £40000 - £55000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Service Delivery Manager (Product Ma...

    Technical Product Marketing Specialist - London - £70,000

    £50000 - £70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Cloud Product and Solutions Marketin...

    Trainee Helpdesk Analyst / 1st Line Application Support Analyst

    £18000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

    Day In a Page

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam