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Editor’s blogs: “Free” game apps that come with big iTunes bills

My husband and I are beginning to regret the day we bought an iPad. The apps are cool and all, don’t get me wrong. A month-long Angry Birds addiction isn’t going to destroy a household.

But certain supposedly innocent games just might ravage your wallet. Our 9-year-old daughter was born into a digital world. Moving her small fingers over touch screens, or typing text messages on tiny keyboards are just routine – maybe more so – than brushing her hair or using a pencil.

Beautiful world of touch screens

Enter the world of apps. The night sky app pretty much blows your mind. Point your iPad in any direction and it shows you where certain stars, planets and constellations are at any given time. The first book we downloaded was Alice in Wonderland. Flip a page, jostle the iPad and shake a bottle labeled “drink me” and watch it move about the otherwise antique-looking book page.  Shake it again, and watch an old-fashioned pocket watch bounce about the screen attached by a small “chain” to the letter “S.” Or how ‘bout the Zen-invoking iFish Pond app. I could probably stare at that, and poke my fingers around in the “water,” for hours.

But those apps are so yesterday.

The junk food of apps

Our daughter has since taken command of this flat black machine – even though it’s ours, not hers – and loaded it with all her new favorite games. The 11 talking games now on our iPad started with Talking Tom. You talk, and the animated cat repeats everything you say in a most grating way. Funny for 5 minutes, then you want to run away.

Then, there’s the “maker games,” or at least that’s how someone under the age of 10 has categorized them on our iPad, using an icon filled with tiny mini-icons. Icons within icons, how truly modern.  These mind-numbing games include “cupcake maker,” “fondue maker,” “donut maker, “nachos maker” and “ICEE maker.”

Other game apps I would toss in this category are DressUpBaby or Toca Hair Salon. Then, there’s Temple Run that features a super hero type dude running and grunting through ancient ruins in a jungle.

At first, I was monitoring the apps and games my daughter was playing. But I became lazy, my daughter got the password out of me, and, with some money in an iTunes gift card (birthday present) started buying her own apps.

I gave things a cursory glance and they all seemed innocent enough  – until I started getting the iTunes invoices.

Turns out some of these apps aren’t so innocent. A kid gets hooked into a game, and without knowing it, starts racking up all these additional charges, known as “in-app purchases.”

On March 16, we were charged $17.22, which included a $5.99 for Master ICEE Maker. There are three charges for a game called The Oregon Trail, for $4.97. The kicker? A “free” app called Draw Something Free, sold by OMGPOP. But guess what? Click into it and you’re charged $.99 for TieDyeDoodle, another $ .99 JellyDoodle and the list keeps going. My  daughter played five of those.

Same with Toca Hair Salon, a “free” app, but with insidious charges once you start to play. I just checked out Temple Run, and clicked on a button called “free coins.” Guess what? The only free thing you can do there is “like” the game on Facebook. All the piles of coins cost anywhere from $.99 to $19.99.

Over one month, we racked up $54.95 in iTunes charges for games we didn’t want to pay for.

How to make sure this doesn’t happen to you

We have since figured out how to change our iPad settings so that in-app purchases will not be allowed. Read this post by iPad Insight to find out how to adjust your iPad purchase settings.

I guess we should count ourselves lucky. One English boy spent about $2,084 over four days buying animals to play an iPad app called Tap Zoo. (I just checked and we have that one, too). The app is free, but the animals used to play it aren’t. After some angry exchanges with the boy’s parents, Apple refunded their money. Read more in Lisa Belkin’s Huffington Post blog.

Last week a Federal District Court judge agreed with a Philadelphia parent, who complained about a $200 iTunes bill for various “extras” that his 9-year-old daughter purchased to play “free” apps. The judge agreed that even if parents give  children passwords to make purchases, the cost of so-called free games is “misleading.”

Some in the blogosphere have blamed parents for being too lax about what their kids are doing online. I will admit to being lax for allowing my daughter to spend precious minutes of her life playing games with zero educational value. But I will not take the blame for allowing her to play “free” games that aren’t actually free. To me, this is more than misleading, it’s fraud.

Maybe that is just a lesson she needs to learn. Maybe it’s no different than those pre-recorded phone calls I get telling me I’m about to win something big, really big – I just need to call a phone number to claim my prize. It takes me all of a second to hang up.


About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.