It was one o’clock in the morning and I had maintained a moderate pace of drinking since noon when I decided to check my email. Amongst the handful of legitimate emails and the mountain of spam I noticed an inordinate number of messages from iTunes. I opened one up and to my horror, discovered a bill for approximately JPY8,000 – there were three more mails… my booze addled brain did some crude arithmetic and I arrived at the grand total of JPY21,000. What the hell had happened? I hadn’t bought anything, I’d installed a few games for my son but they were all free.
I looked deeper, forced myself through the few kanji that I knew and read through the katakana – but the fatal words “In-app Purchase” were written in English. While I had been knocking back the craft brews and enjoying the healthy food at the organic restaurant around the corner from my house, my five-year-old son had been totally dominating in Lil’ Pirates – he spent around $260.
Interestingly enough, the App Store page for Lil’ Pirates has the following disclaimer:
PLEASE NOTE: Lil’ Pirates is free to play, but charges real money for additional in-app content. You may lock out the ability to purchase in-app content by adjusting your device’s settings.
The Japanese store has the disclaimer in English as well. I just didn’t see it on the mobile version of the page.
How did it happen? I had been certain to log-out from the iTunes account. The thing of it is I am an Android guy. Once my cell carrier got its act together and got itself some smart phones, I put down the iPod Touch and didn’t pick it up again. A couple years of software updates later and there were a bunch of new settings that I probably should have known about, but didn’t… because I hadn’t bothered to look. All I did was to make sure I stayed logged out of iTunes so that junior couldn’t spend up big on apps like he did two years ago when he was three.
What I should have done is gone into Settings -> General -> Restrictions and switched “In-app Purchases” to “Off”. While it is a “restriction” it seems an odd place to keep it. Surely, it would be better placed in the account menu – not hidden away in Restrictions. But that shouldn’t matter because in a perfect world, a third-party software publisher would not have free access to your credit card via the iTunes store.
I am not naïve. I understand that in-app purchases are here to stay, that they give software publishers and iTunes a valuable stream of revenue – I just think that they should raise the bar a little when it comes to ethical conduct. Why should there be an in-app item that is worth more than $80 in a game that seems designed to appeal to children? Shouldn’t there be some sort of authorization protocol built in to prevent unauthorized purchases or exploitation by unscrupulous publishers? Apple seems to have dropped the ball here.
Yes, I should have activated restrictions and the games Terms of Service probably mentioned in-app purchases, but they were in Japanese and I probably wouldn’t have read them if they were in English. I understand that a big part of the fault is mine, but that doesn’t change the fact that Apple has effectively thrown third-party publishers a key to its subscribers’ bank accounts. There is an easy way to fix the issue and it wouldn’t be too much work: stick a pre-pay buffer between the software and the account. Make apps draw from pre-paid funds and include some form of authorization protocol on each and every in-app purchase. That would keep everyone safe and would go a long way towards preventing expensive accidents. It seems to work well for Steam.
I raised a number of these points in poorly written Japanese when I demanded a refund from iTunes Japan. I got it, along with a letter that denied any responsibility and laid the blame squarely on me and the fact that I had not activated the in-app purchase restriction. Perhaps I dropped the ball as a parent and as a sensible user of technology. At the end of the day, I got my money back and I am happy for that and I learned a valuable lesson about kids and technology. It won’t happen to me again: not just because I turned on the in-app purchasing restriction… but because I took the added measure of removing my credit card details from my iTunes account. While a good portion of the blame rests squarely on my shoulders, Apple could do a lot better.