Kids are making more in-app purchases

What if your child racks up charges?
Published: Mar. 21, 2023 at 7:05 PM MST|Updated: Mar. 22, 2023 at 2:05 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) -

Kayla Howard is an Arizona single mom who works two jobs. Things were already tight when she got a call from her credit card company, telling her about $897 worth of suspicious charges. She discovered one of her four children made in-app purchases on Roblox, their favorite game.

”He is seven, he has autism, so it’s hard for him to recognize consequences for his actions,” Howard said. When she first reached out to Google Play and Roblox, she got a ten dollar refund. Following up a couple of months later, we learned Roblox eventually refunded her the full amount. Not every parent is that lucky.

RJ Cross with the Public Interest Network hears from parents a lot. She says, never before have kids had such unprecedented access to tools that could allow them to spend their parents’ money on game upgrades, such as new characters or accessories.

“This is a much bigger problem than people realize, and it can really cost parents big,” Cross said. “Unfortunately, there’s pretty limited recourse that parents can pursue. Each provider has their own policy, so if it’s an Apple or Google app, they have a form for you to fill out. But you have to be fast - they want you to fill it out within about two days.”

Cross said, do not wait until you get your credit card statement - it will be too late. You can try disputing the charge with your credit card company, but it’s not guaranteed because a child making purchases isn’t legally fraud. In fact, even if your credit card company reaches out to you because charges look suspicious, that still doesn’t mean you’ll get refunded.

“It doesn’t make sense that so many kids apps have the ability to make in app purchases. It would be better if we just set limits that said certain types of opportunities to spend money just shouldn’t exist in apps for kids,” Cross said.

The government has already taken action against Google and Apple regarding in-app purchases, and is still looking closely at games that entice kids to spend money, so there may be more regulatory action to come. In the meantime, tech expert Andy Taylor of TechTalkRadio told us, in-app purchases are not going away. They’re big business.

“They’re making millions of dollars off of in-app purchases - that’s where the money is,” Taylor said.

He’s right: the latest study by Statista shows, in about 40% of families, kids spend between $10 and $100 each month on in-app purchases. More than eight percent spend more than $100.

“It’s why they make these games so cheap or free, is because that’s how they make their money,” Taylor said.

If all else fails, you can lodge a complaint with the FTC. You might even get to join a class action suit - though, that would take even longer to get some of your money back. More than a thousand complaints have been filed already, but you don’t have to live in fear.

”Do not to be afraid to say, hey, if you wanna use Roblox, that’s great, but I’m gonna set it up for you,” Taylor said.

He emphasizes, it starts with where kids play, and on which devices. ”The best thing you can do to protect yourself and your child is put it in an open public and set up your child to play in a common area, where you can observe,” Taylor said.

Most popular games have parental controls that take minutes to set up. ”It’ll allow you to set time limits, spending limits, if you do not want your child to have access to this it’ll basically lock off at a certain point,” Taylor said.

You can also choose to authorize purchases. Similarly, if you have Apple devices, you can set up limits through Family Sharing. That’s in your settings.

“It gives them a little freedom but allows you to lock out any credit card information,” said Taylor. To avoid credit cards completely, Taylor recommends gift cards, “You want to be able to say, ‘Here’s $20, you did a great job this week’ and you give them that as a gift that way it doesn’t tap into your credit cards.”

Beyond the spending, parental controls on Roblox, Fortnite, Minecraft, and other games let parents to monitor in-game chat, which could be even more crucial. Talk to your child about not answering questions. Even chat that seems trivial can come from predators.

“‘Do you play baseball? what team do you play on? Where do you play?’ That’s giving up too much information,” Taylor said.

And fraudsters are on chats, too. Their handiwork can lead from fun - to financial ruin.

“Those questions are leading to fishing, social engineering that can be used against us, and other families, as well,” Taylor said. “How terrible it would be to wake up and find out your bank account is drained.”