Parents sue Apple over in-app game charges

A young boy looks at an Apple iPad
Image caption Buying in-app add-ons typically means players can progress more quickly

Apple is being sued by parents who claim the iPhone-maker is unfairly profiting from in-app payments in games aimed at children.

Many games on the iOS platform are free to download but offer game add-ons, some of which cost nearly £70.

The group said it was too easy for children to run up big bills without "authorisation of their parents".

Apple had called for the case to be dismissed, pointing out that in-app purchasing can now be disabled.

However, US District Judge Edward Davila said the hearing could now go ahead.

Apple's purchasing system allows users to enter their credit-card details once and then authorise future payments for apps and other items with just a password.

In a recent update to its iOS software, Apple added extra steps in the in-app purchasing process, including the requirement to enter an additional password to buy items within apps.

It is now also possible to turn the feature off entirely.

However, the group of parents, led by attorney Garen Meguerian, said children were still encouraged to buy items by the games' addictive nature, and parents might not be fully aware of the financial implications.

Apple has not yet responded to requests for comment on the case.

Other mobile platforms, such as Google's Android, also offer in-app purchasing functions.

Smurfberry Shop

In a court filing first made in 2011, Mr Meguerian highlighted several titles which he believed were developed "strategically to induce purchases of Game Currency".

Among them was Smurfs' Village, developed by Capcom. While the game itself is free, in-app purchases available in the "Smurfberry Shop" range from £2.99 to £69.99.

A warning message in the game's description states that Smurfs' Village "charges real money for additional in-app content".

It is possible to play the game without spending money. However, progress is typically far slower for the player.

One review of the game states: "You really wont get anywhere with just the free stuff."

In-app payments have been the subject of scrutiny in the US. Last year, the practice was investigated by the US Federal Trade Commission which ruled developers must do more to warn parents about the content of their games.

'Difficult steps'

In the UK, Niamh Bolton told the BBC she felt "physically sick" after learning her 10-year-old daughter had totted up a bill of more than £1,500 while playing Tap Pet Hotel.

The game, developed by San Francisco-based Pocket Gems, is part of a wider "Tap" series which was also referred to in Mr Meguerian's court filing.

Ms Bolton said the purchases, which were made before Apple added the in-app disabling feature, were made within two hours.

"It was more than our monthly mortgage repayment," she told the BBC.

"We didn't have that sort of spare cash in the bank account."

She was able to get the money refunded after contacting Apple customer services.

"The difficulty we had was contacting iTunes," she said.

"I had to go through a series of very difficult steps to send an email to them."

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