Apple in-app purchases to come under legal spotlight

A group of American parents has received permission from a judge to sue Apple over their children’s in-app purchases.

The parents claim that Apple’s misleading customers by stocking products in its iTunes Store that charge large sums for games credits and the like – even though the apps themselves are free to download.

The lawsuit cites the ‘free’ app Smurf Village as a particularly egregious example. It describes the game as a ‘bait-and-switch’ scheme targeted specifically at minors, with 1,000 in-app credits costing $59.

Apple’s been claiming that the case has no merit. Because it’s tightened its log-in procedures to require that a password be entered for every purchase, it says, parents only have themselves to blame.

But, says lead plaintiff and lawyer Garen Meguerian of Pennsylvania, the new rules don’t go far enough. Children with access to their parent’s iTunes account can still make purchases; Apple should introduce a secondary password, he says.

And US District Judge Edward Davila has now sided with the parents, and ruled that the case can go ahead.

“Plaintiffs’ minor children were able to charge their parents’ accounts in amounts ranging from $99.99 to $338.72 at a time,” he says in his ruling.

As it happens, my own family’s been burned this way, to the tune of a couple of hundred dollars. Many others, though, have had even more of a shock. One British mother told the BBC that, in just two hours, her daughter ran up a £1,500 bill on a game called Tap Pet Hotel.

The news on the Apple lawsuit comes on the same day as an announcement from Amazon that it’s to remove its own $20 limit on in-app purchases. It can do this safely, it says, as it’s improved its parental controls to require an password or a four-digit PIN.

In light of the Apple decision, it’d better be sure it’s right…