Consumer: Games that leave you far from ‘app’y

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Appy talk: Phone-app games have trapped many unwitting consumers into huge bills. But is the game now over for the makers?

A regulator has given the phone-app and online games industry two months to get its house in order, in a bid to protect children and unwitting parents from huge bills – and to ensure games producers do not breach consumer law.

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has published its final ‘principles for online and in-app games’, and given games producers a deadline of April 1 to shape up.

The new crackdown follows an investigation after complaints that children were spending huge amounts of money on in-app and mobile games without their parents’ permission.

The OFT’s latest guidelines say that consumers should be told up-front about costs associated with a game or about in-game advertising, and any important information such as whether their personal data is to be shared with other parties for marketing purposes.

The principles also make clear that in-game payments are not authorised, and should not be taken, unless the payment account holder, such as a parent, has given his or her express, informed consent.

The OFT has also published new guidance for parents that will help to make sure that children are not pressured into making in-game purchases and reduce the risk of their making unauthorised payments.

Research shows that nearly 90 per cent of children aged between seven and 15 have played online games in the past six months, with half paying to play at least once.

The OFT advice suggests that parents:

Check the ‘payment options’ settings on their device. One option is to make sure that a password is required for every purchase;

Check whether there are any in-game purchases or whether the game contains a social element by looking at its description on the app store or the game’s website;

Play the game themselves to understand what children will see;

Be aware that game content could change via automatic updates.

Martin Lewis, founder of the MoneySavingExpert.com consumer website, has welcomed the developments, but said action should have come sooner.

“While any and all action is welcomed, the games industry should’ve been banged to rights already over this,” he said. “The fact that games and apps targeted at children pump out charges that can add up to thousands of pounds in a few hours is simply irresponsible.

“The finger also needs to be pointed at the Apple and Google app stores. They’re very protective when it comes to technical and branding guidelines and approve all game launches. But while these huge wealthy companies purport to uphold the highest standards, they’ve waived through scores of games which target young children with hefty charges. They need to take some responsibility.

“I’m not suggesting parents should be let off the hook for not properly protecting their phones or tablets, but part of the problem is that many kids are more tech-savvy than their parents. Young kids can easily pick up passwords as they sit on mum or dad’s knee. Who can blame them for using the password when they’re in games that encourage them to collect treasures?”

Clive Maxwell, OFT Chief Executive, said: “Many children enjoy playing these types of games.

“This rapidly growing creative sector has also brought wider economic benefits. The on-line and apps based games industry has already made significant improvements during our consultation process. But it still needs to do more to protect children and treat its customers fairly.

“Our principles make clear the type of practices that games makers and platform operators should avoid.

“Parents and carers have an important role to help protect their child and their bank balance. Our advice is that parents check their device settings, play their child’s games themselves and read the game’s description online.

“Parents will also be encouraged to report concerns to Citizens Advice.”

TIPS FOR PARENTS

Tips courtesy of MoneySavingExpert.com

Protect your passwords

Always supervise your child. Make sure you know what he or she is downloading, and any extra costs they may be incurring.

Restrict in-app purchases with a password/Pin.

Use parental controls on your device.

Unlink your credit/debit card from your account.

If you’ve been stung by a massive charge, ask your mobile provider for a refund as a gesture of goodwill.

Corinne Bailey Rae, who has backed the Leeds2023 culture bid.

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