Are Parents To Blame For iPad In-App Purchase Sprees?

Reports of children blowing $1000s on the family iPad via in-app game purchase sprees highlight the need for parents to set up restrictions.

Last month alone saw three new stories which highlight the financial risks faced by parents who don’t understand (or don’t care about) how their money may be spent on iPads. Let’s take a look at each case and see if there are any conclusions we can draw:

The first was of a five year old who used the family’s iPad to blow £1700 ($2600) of his parents’ cash on successive in-app games purchases. The parents admitted that they put in a pass code for their son, thinking that he was “downloading a free game”. In other words, they couldn’t be bothered to check – they just gave up their credit card security based on the wishes of a five year old child.

They also received emails itemizing each successive £69.99 purchase but ignored them all because they “were believed to be sent in error”. Personally I think I would be a little less relaxed about emails detailing purchases within a kids’ game if I had just typed in the pass code for my child who was playing just such a game…

The mother was quoted as “to be honest, I’m not sure how he did it”. It’s really not that hard to work out though – the family credit card was linked to their iTunes account and the parents typed in the pass code for him, all the kid had to do was keep pressing the ‘Buy’ button…

Despite the fact that the parents appear not to have set up any parental controls, Apple still refunded the charges.

Protect your money

The second case saw an eight year old run up a $1500 bill on an iPad Simpson’s game – more than 100 purchases over the course of a month and a half. The parents said “iPads can be great for keeping them occupied but there has to be more control.” Very true – but surely that additional ‘control’ is supposed to be exercised by the parent – isn’t that why it’s called parental responsibility?

Apparently not, the mother claimed “We just don’t have time to monitor what they are playing” – or, presumably, whether they are viewing inappropriate material or visiting adult chatrooms etc. Once again, Apple refunded the charges so using an iPad as a childminding service turned out to be free after all…

In the third and most serious case, a thirteen year old boy ran up a whopping £3700 ($5,600) bill on his father’s credit card. However, this time Apple refused a refund – so the father, a serving police officer, reported his own son to the police for fraud, claiming he only did this “to embarrass Apple as much as possible”.

His argument that an intelligent 13 year old boy was unaware of any charge when making over 300 separate game purchases (he would have had to key in a pass code before each one) seems so unlikely that I’m not surprised Apple refused a refund, citing parental responsibility.

Apart from the possibility of his son gaining a criminal record, attempting to pass the buck to Apple doesn’t set a good example. Whatever happened to taking responsibility for your own actions – no more birthday/Christmas presents or pocket money until the debt has been repaid perhaps?

What is even more ironic in this case is that the iPad was his son’s (bought via a school scheme) and the school provided various free seminars for parents about the iPads – including the topic of in-app purchases. The school website also provided lots of simple information for parents about security and how to set restrictions on what their children could do. They also highlighted the story from the first case above to prevent such huge bills and they even produced their own YouTube video illustrating the simple steps required. All of which appears to have been completely ignored in this case…

How To Set Restrictions On Your Child’s iPad

One option to avoid large unexpected bills is to use iTunes Gift Cards instead of linking the device via iTunes to your own credit card. However, if you do use a credit card, there are plenty of online videos and tutorials to show how to restrict in-app purchases on an iPad (or iPhone) and it is very simple to do – an example video is shown below:

Using a different passcode just for these restrictions should stop a child from making any unauthorized electronic purchases and prevent unwelcome surprises. Apple have also added a new ‘Offers In-App Purchases’ warning to the description of apps that use this feature – so parents can clearly see, before installing an app, if it might offer purchases later on.

Of course if parents give this restrictions pass code to the child or don’t bother to set one up, cases like those above will continue to happen – perhaps such parents have only themselves to blame.


As the last example shows all too clearly, Apple decide whether refunds are made on a case by case basis – parents should not assume that they will get away with it if they fail to set up parental controls and in-app purchase restrictions – it is easy to do and takes less than a minute.