THE UK GOVERNMENT Office of Fair Trading (OFT) is looking into whether children are "unfairly pressured" into paying for additional content by otherwise free apps.
The OFT said it has launched an investigation into the mean streets of app stores, and will try to work out whether vulnerable children are being led into innocent-looking free games only to find that they are virtual fruit-creating, money-grabbing traps.
"We are concerned that children and their parents could be subject to unfair pressure to purchase when they are playing games they thought were free, but which can actually run up substantial costs," said Cavendish Elithorn, OFT senior director for goods and consumers.
"The OFT is not seeking to ban in-game purchases, but the games industry must ensure it is complying with the relevant regulations so that children are protected. We are speaking to the industry and will take enforcement action if necessary."
The OFT is reacting to the tabloid scare stories about people who choose to nanny their children with £500 pieces of computing equipment and then reel back in horror when they discover that they have spent thousands more on virtual unicorn horn polish, donuts and gems. One recent case saw a father shop his son to the police, after said offspring ran up a £3,700 iTunes app bill.
Often what happens in these cases is that the firm at the centre of the scandal, because it makes the hardware and the operating system that the games are installed on, steps in and cancels the bill.
Something has really shaken the OFT here though, because it paints a picture in which apps put the hard arm on kids and their parents, and force them into parting with their hard-earned readies.
"The OFT investigation is exploring whether these games are misleading, commercially aggressive or otherwise unfair," it explained.
"In particular, the OFT is looking into whether these games include 'direct exhortations' to children - a strong encouragement to make a purchase, or to do something that will necessitate making a purchase, or to persuade their parents or other adults to make a purchase for them."
The two big players in the app market, Google and Apple, both recommend that parents visit the settings pages on their app store accounts and put blocks that prevent real cash from turning into virtual crapola.
Google states in its developer rules that it has no time or space in the Android store for those firms that seek to mislead anyone about anything.
"Developers must not mislead users about the applications they are selling nor about any in-app services, goods, content or functionality they are selling," it says. Users are also able to flag apps that they believe are in violation.
Apple's advice for limiting the amount of damage a child can do with an iTunes account is to advise parents limit the amount of damage a child can do.
It recommends, among other things, that parents set spending limits or require the repeated entry of a password before any action is accepted. µ