Apple isn't doing enough about in-app purchases, watchdog says

European consumer regulators have criticised Apple for not doing enough to tackle bills unexpectedly run up by sneaky apps.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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European consumer watchdogs have criticised Apple for not moving fast enough to tackle the problem of apps that don't make it clear how much of a bill you're running up.

In a new statement, the European Commission acknowledges that Google is making progress but says Apple has offered "no concrete and immediate solutions to address concerns linked in particular to payment authorisation."

You'd think Apple would be in a hurry to get this sorted -- the California-based company was earlier forced to refund $32.5 million to disgruntled parents over kids racking up unexpectedly huge bills -- but the EU says it has seen "no firm commitment and no timing" for proposed changes.

Consumer bodies around the world have moved to tackle the problem of surprise bills run up in apps that encourage spending on bonuses within the app or game. Instead of paying for the app or game up-front, many apps have adopted the "freemium" model: it's free to download the app to your phone or tablet, but extras such as more lives or in-game currency to spend on treats are charged at a premium.

These are called in-app purchases. Consumer bodies including the EC and the US Federal Trade Commission have placed the onus on Apple, Google and the owners of app stores to ensure the apps they sell make it clear when you're spending money and ask for permission when necessary -- for example when children are spending money in a game on their parents' phone or tablet.

You must enter a password to download from the Apple app store, and once you've done that the store can be unlocked for 15 minutes. Although there are options to disable in-app purchases or require a password again with each subsequent purchase, a parent could easily unlock their iPad or iPhone and hand it to their child who could run up more paid downloads without either realising. Making it even less clear that real money is actually being spent -- and making purchases more alluring to little'uns -- many apps also present in-app purchases in the form of a fun made-up currency such as " smurfberries."

To prevent the kind of unexpected bills this can lead to, the European Commission has set out rules for Google and Apple to make clear the costs of apps on sale in their respective app stores.

"All organisations should be proactive in moving towards meeting these challenges," said Tony Neate, CEO of online safety and privacy organisation Get Safe Online. In the meantime, Get Safe Online suggests you keep an eye on what apps your child is using on a smartphone or tablet, keep your mobile device protected with a PIN, and don't reveal the login details you use for the Apple App Store, Google Play or other sources of apps.

It helps to get to know the parental controls on your device and in the app stores, and always check your cell phone bills for numbers or payments you do not recognise. For more advice and information on payments made on your phone, check out PhoneBrain.org.

An Apple spokesperson highlighted the changes Apple has made in the last year, marking apps that include in-app purchases and creating a Kids Section for under-13s on the App Store with stronger protections. "These controls go far beyond the features of others in the industry," said the spokesperson, "but we are always working to strengthen the protections we have in place," pointing to new features coming this autumn.

That's when iOS 8 lands, the latest version of Apple's software for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Among its myriad new features is Ask to Buy, which requires permission for purchases from iTunes, iBooks and the App Store, with separate Apple IDs for children too.

For more on Apple's policies, check out these official pages: Learn More About In-App Purchases and iOS: Understanding Restrictions (parental controls).

A spokesperson for Google also told us that, "We've been working closely with the European Commission and consumer protection agencies for the last few months to make improvements to Google Play that will be good for our users and provide better protections for children."