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In-app payments investigated by UK Office of Fair Trading

The regulator is investigating whether in-app payments illegally tempt children to spend their parents' money.

UK regulator the Office of Fair Trading is investigating whether in-app payments illegally tempt children to spend their parents' money.

After a series of high-profile incidents in which children have racked up bills of thousands of pounds on digital goods such as in-game currency and items, the OFT is looking into industry practices.

While being careful to stress this investigation is in partnership with app developers, it warns that 'direct exhortations' to children are unlawful under the Consumer Protection (from Unfair Trading) Regulations 2008.

Direct exhortations are defined as "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."

"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, the OFT's senior director for goods and consumer.

"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."

As well as developers and app stores such as Google Play and iTunes, the OFT will talk to parents' groups. In an interview with BBC 5 Live this morning, Elithorn stressed that parents bore some responsibility for giving their children access to the necessary passwords for spending money in apps.

Earlier this year, Apple refunded a Bristol family after their son racked up a whopping £1,700 bill for purchases in the game Zombies vs Ninjas.

"Our parents' guide to iTunes details the steps and measures parents and guardians can take to make sure younger players have access to the right content," Apple said at the time. "The first thing we recommend you do is not to share your password."

Apple settled a US lawsuit in February with disgruntled parents over in-app purchases. By default, iOS devices had a rule whereby you didn't need to enter your password to buy something if you'd entered it in the previous 15 minutes, for convenience's sake. This led to parents entering their password to download an app, then handing the device to their kids who immediately began paying for stuff, perhaps not realising they were spending real money. Apple has since made this feature opt-in, and added a small warning if a free app offers in-app purchases.

What kind of protections do you think children need? Should parents just pay more attention? What's the worst in-app purchase you've ever seen? Let me know down in the comments, or on our completely unregulated Facebook page.

Image credit: SWNS