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FTC plans to review in-app purchases

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Smurfs under fire

It's not often that the Smurfs can trigger an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission.

Amid stories of parents being shocked to see their children inadvertently racking up huge bills while innocently playing apps like Smurfs'
Village
(a Farmville-like game centering on the little blue folk), the FTC reportedly plans to review the marketing and delivery of apps that include in-app purchases.

The fear, says The Washington Post, is that young consumers may not understand the
ramifications of the charges, which can quickly reach into hundreds -- or even thousands -- of dollars.

While Apple has some safeguards in place to prevent accidental purchases of this sort, they're not foolproof. Users have to enter their account password when buying an app, but for a 15-minute window after that, it's not required for subsequent purchases. Developer Capcom has noted that the ability to purchase in-app content can also be locked out by adjusting the iDevice's settings.

During that window, children have managed to run up bills by buying "smurfberries" and "snowflakes" in the game to improve their in-game house. The problem, contend critics, is that kids can't tell the difference between that sort of in-game currency (which can cost up to $99 in real world cash) and the gold coins won in other games that carry no
charge.

"Companies shouldn't be able to use Smurfs and snowflakes and zoos as online ATMs pulling money from the pockets of unsuspecting parents," said U.S. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) in a letter to the FTC, which sparked the review.

Apple has been quick to refund the charges to people who complain with no questions asked, and has even spoken with developer Capcom about the uproar over the charges. But not every parent contacts the company when junior hits the "buy" button.

It's also worth noting that since its debut last fall, Smurfs' Village remains one of the top-grossing apps, despite being a free download.

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