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Developers have two months to sort out in-app purchase practices

OFT offers to off offenders
Thu Jan 30 2014, 13:13
Office of Fair Trading

A SWAGGERING Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has reminded mobile firms and game developers that they have just two months to straighten out their in-app purchase problems.

Those problems, in case you missed it, involve how easy it is for little kids to spend cash on virtual crap in games.

Few games do not indulge in the world of in-app purchases, and a recent title from Rovio included a download that cost around £70. This is not an isolated case, and it is not uncommon for free to download games to pull in money like the sea swallows river floods.

The OFT does not like this, naturally, and objects to the thought of parents selling a real car to pay for a virtual one or rid themselves of a multi-thousand pound unicorn diamond turd debt.

"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 OFT senior director for goods and consumers Cavendish Elithorn last spring as the watchdog fretted about kids and the kinds of lures that are presented to them.

"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 investigation is exploring whether these games are misleading, commercially aggressive or otherwise unfair."

Firms have until 1 April to make changes to protect children and parents from abusive costs, said the OFT, and it and Ofcom have provided firms with guidance on what they must do to avoid trouble.

The industry, most keenly seen in Google Play and the Apple app store, has reacted to the problems already and many companies offer guidance and advice about not using, and not granting small children access to, money pit honey pots.

Google makes it clear to developers that such behaviour is not on, while Apple recommends that parents limit their offspring's access to the store and its money sucking features.

This might remain useful to some parents. A report in today's Daily Mail reaches for the heartstrings with an emotive story about a three year old who is "addicted to the iPad", steals it from his sleeping parents, makes in-app store purchases, plays noisy Peppa Pig games, and kills other pigs with slingshotted birds.

The parents fretted for a while before nipping this in the bud and restricting the toddler to just two hours of face to screen action per day.

Earlier this year Apple was told by the FTC that it must pay $32m, or around £20m, back to parents whose children made in-app purchases without their explicit consent. Apple didn't see no problem with that ruling.

As well as giving the online games industry a nudge, the OFT has also prepared advice for parents.

"The online and apps based games industry has already made significant improvements during our consultation process. But it still needs to do more to protect children and treat its customers fairly. Our principles make clear the type of practices that games makers and platform operators should avoid," said OFT chief executive Clive Maxwell.

"Parents and carers have an important role to help protect their child and their bank balance. Our advice is that parents check their device settings, play their child's games themselves and read the game's description online. Parents will also be encouraged to report concerns to Citizens Advice." µ


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