Feb. 10, 2011 at 11:23 AM ET
Two elementary-school-age boys spent $52 buying virtual coins to play with dolphins in an iPhone game. An eight-year-old girl ran up a $1,400 iTunes bill while purchasing 'Smurfberries' for characters in the Smurfs' Village iPhone app. Their parents were entirely unaware of these shopping sprees — until they looked at their credit card statements.
We've heard plenty of cautionary tales in which unsuspecting parents let their children play with iPhones only to later discover that the little ones managed to rack up thousand dollar iTunes bills thanks to Apple's in-app purchase system. Now people are beginning to wonder whether the system is designed and marketed in a way that takes advantage of kids.
After being asked to investigate the situation, the FTC may soon wonder the same thing.
The basic issue is that while most iPhone apps make it clear that in-app purchases of points or in-app items — such as crops or building material in a farm-themed game — do in fact cost real-world money, children may not comprehend the concept. To young kids, a few taps on a touchscreen simply don't translate into mom and dad's bank account being drained.
That's why US Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) drafted a letter to the FTC after reading an article in the Washington Post which described the situation. According to Ars Technica, the letter was accompanied by a statement describing Markey's dismay:
I am disturbed by news that in-app purchases may be taking advantage of children’s lack of understanding when it comes to money and what it means to ‘buy’ an imaginary game piece on the Web. Companies shouldn’t be able to use Smurfs and snowflakes and zoos as online ATMs pulling money from the pockets of unsuspecting parents.
It's not certain whether the FTC will actually wind up investigating in-app purchases, so for now all parents can really do is sit their kids down and explain the reality of what happens if a few enticing buttons are tapped. Parents can also head into their iPhones' 'General Settings' menu and disable in-app purchases entirely in the 'Restrictions' section — though even that restriction can be circumvented if the little ones discover the parental control password.