Three online games could be investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) following concerns they may encourage children to buy extra game features when playing.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has referred three unnamed online games to the ASA as it is concerned they may breach Advertising Codes and consumer law by coaxing children to buy, or ask their parents to buy, in-game features.

Often, it costs little or nothing to download a game. But the true horror comes from charges for additional features, known as in-app or in-game billing, once you or your kids start playing.

MoneySavingExpert.com reported in February 2013 how a six-year-old spent £3,200 on in-app purchases buying virtual mountains of food for his virtual farm animals. We also exposed how the My Little Pony mobile and tablet game encouraged kids to spend £70 a pop on virtual gems.

Miles Lockwood, ASA director of investigations, says: "It's crucial that the ads children see, hear and interact with don't confuse, mislead or directly exhort them to make purchases. We welcome the CMA's referrals and will now establish whether the ads break the rules and to ensure children are treated fairly."

Games firms cleaning up their act

The move by the CMA follows earlier monitoring of the industry by the now defunct Office of Fair Trading (OFT).

In January 2014 it published new rules requiring games firms to be upfront about associated costs, to only take payments that have been authorised, and to tell customers whether personal data would be shared with third parties. See the Games firms told to clean up their act over costly kids' apps MSE News story for more information.

The CMA says major games sellers Google and Apple have both made changes since, particularly around strengthening payment authorisation settings and by asking games makers to stop describing games as 'free' when they contain in-app purchases.

Martin Lewis
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Prevent MASSIVE mobile bills

Depending on your phone make and/or model, there are a number of precautions you can take to limit your chance of being hit with a big bill:

  • Protect your passwords. Children are smart – they can remember passwords and Pins. There have been countless reports on the MoneySavingExpert.com forum from parents whose children have memorised passwords and used their accounts/credit cards. To stop kids racking up a big bill on your device, change passwords regularly and make sure they are always hidden from children if you don't want them to use it.

  • Always supervise your child. Ensure you know what he or she is downloading, and any extra costs.
  • Restrict in-app purchases with a password/Pin. Here's how to restrict in-app purchases on Google Play/Android. We've also contacted Apple, Blackberry and Microsoft to ask how users can change settings to protect them from big bills and will update this news story as soon as we get a response.

- Apple/iTunes: Go to Settings > General > Restrictions > tap Enable Restrictions > add a passcode.

To prevent in-app purchases, you can turn off in-app purchases in the restrictions setting of your phone, or if you want to completely disable it, you can turn off iTunes Store, iBooks Store, Installing Apps and in-app purchases.

Apple adds that you can prevent purchases by removing your payment method from your account. To do this, tap Settings > iTunes & App Store > tap your Apple ID > Payment Information and then you can remove your payment method by selecting 'None'.

- Google Play/Android: Open the Google Play store app > tap the Menu icon > Settings. Then press the Require authentication for purchases tab. You can also set up authentication every 30 minutes, so that every time you access your account, you can continue to buy through Google Play for the next 30 minutes without the need to authenticate again.

Google adds that games that include in-app purchases have an 'in-app purchases' label under the buy or install button and for any games that are for ages 0-12, a password is required.

  • Ask your mobile provider to cut the bill. If you've been strung by a massive charge, contact your mobile provider and ask it to refund the money as a gesture of goodwill. It may not work, but you won't know until you try. Take this tweet from @missy_bee: "My son spent over £2,000 on apps on the iPad but when I contacted Apple to explain they were brilliant and refunded the lot."
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