Google faces lawsuit by US parents over in-app purchases by kids

Saqib Shah
March 11, 2014

With in-app purchases on free-to-play games currently being scrutinised in the UK and Europe, it seems that the US may soon have to pay attention to the mobile gaming format too.

Despite a number of countries threatening legal action against developers and tech giants alike, disgruntled consumers in the US have decided to tackle the issue head-on.

Their discontent is firmly geared toward Google, which now  is facing a class action lawsuit filed by parents in the US whose children downloaded a free or modestly-priced game on Google Play, and then chalked up charges for in-app game purchases without the parents’ knowledge or authorisation,  according to a  press release  issued by law firm Berger & Montague.

GigaOm  reports that the lawsuit stemmed from a mother in New York, who says her five-year-old son spent $65.95 on in-app purchases while  playing “Marvel Run Jump Smash!” on a Samsung Galaxy tablet.

The lawsuit claims that the  Google Play store is full of games and apps that lure children into spending money and accuses the company of unjust enrichment and violating consumer protection laws.

Specifically, the case alleges that the Google Play App Store permits users to browse and download games either for free or at a minimal cost. Among the thousands of Apps offered in the Google Play App Store there are “many games targeted at children”.

Although there are numerous games that are offered for free or at a nominal cost, many are designed to induce purchases of what Google refers to as “In-App Purchases” or “In-App Content” that provide in-game currency to facilitate playing the game as it was designed to be played.

According to the press release, these games are “engineered to be highly addictive” and require the purchase of in-game currency at times to continue playing. The games frequently permit the purchase of in-game currency in large amounts as much as  $100 per purchase or more.

Although Google requires users to authenticate their accounts by entering a password prior to purchasing a game or buying in-game currency, once the password is entered, Google permits the user of a device to make additional purchases for up to thirty minutes without re-entering the password.

“This practice is designed to enable children to purchase in-game currency without parental permission and without having to enter a password. The purchases are then billed directly to the parent or guardian.”

This isn’t the first time a company has been targeted over in-app purchases.  The case against Google mirrors a similar case brought against Apple over so-called “bait apps” that are typically free to obtain but encourage users to spend money within the game.  Apple  paid $5 million  to settle the case in 2013 and also paid a related  $32.5 million fine  early this year.

In light of the lawsuit,  Apple also made changes to its app structure to prevent younger users from quickly racking up large bills. Google did something similar last month by making  an  adjustment  to  its Play Store to let users know whether an app features in-app purchases or not, in an effort to raise more awareness for consumers. The changes obviously didn’t work. Or maybe it was just a case of too little, too late.


About the Author

Saqib Shah

Tech/gaming journalist for What Mobile magazine and website. Interests include film, digital media and foreign affairs.

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