The makers of two online children's games have been ordered to stop pressuring kids into paying £5/month subscriptions to access all features of their games, but parents should still beware other games that encourage children to spend up to £80-a-time for in-game extras such as virtual cash. Follow our tips below to prevent bill shocks which can total thousands of pounds.

While firms must be clear about costs and not pressure people into spending, they are free to set their own charges, so it is vital you stay on your guard.

Mind Candy Ltd and 55 Pixels Ltd, which make Moshi Monsters and Bin Weevils, felt the wrath of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) this week after it ruled they breached advertising codes and consumer law.

The ASA held that it coaxed children to buy, or ask their parents to buy, memberships costing up to £4.95/month.

Often, it costs little or nothing to download a gaming app onto your phone or to play a game online on your desktop.

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. And it can be incredibly easy, especially for tech-savvy kids who may have little concept of the value of cash, to spend large sums on credit or debit cards linked to your app store.

MoneySavingExpert.com has previously reported 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.

This was in 2013. Yet our fresh investigation this week reveals how a number of high profile smartphone games still pressurise kids into spending huge sums to buy additional features, such as the 'boatload of donuts' for £80 on The Simpsons Tapped Out mobile phone game.

Martin Lewis
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£80 for a virtual chest of diamonds

Shamefully, on revisiting these games this week, we've found that some now charge more than they did two years ago – with some in-app purchases costing a whopping £80. See the table below for the full findings.

When testing three randomly picked games from the list, we found that within just three minutes of playing College Girl, we had the option to go to a virtual ATM and buy virtual gems and coins in order to buy virtual clothes for $99.99 (equiv. £65.76). Without buying these clothes, it's impossible to succeed in the game, as you won't get the right job or get into nightclubs, which is the aim of the game.

On Jurassic Park Builder after the second level we were given the option to buy virtual money for £18.99. However, after 10 minutes of play on The Simpsons Tapped Out, it wasn't immediately obvious how you could buy additional in-app features.

The table below shows how much some of these apps charge:

Games with high cost in-app features
Game What £69.99 got you virtually in 2013 What the most expensive purchase costs NOW and what you get virtually for it
College Girl 20,098 coins or 3,350 gems £79.99 for 20,098 coins or 3,350 gems
Hay Day Trunk of diamonds £29.99 for a chest of diamonds
Jurassic Park Builder Mega pack of bucks £79.99 Mega pack of bucks
Marvel War of Heroes "A crate" £79.99 for crate of 11,000 gold
Real Racing 3 Platinum card/truckload of gold $19.99 dollars (equiv £13.07) for stack of gold
Smurfs' Village Wagon of smurfberries £18.99 for barrel of smurfberries
Subway Surfers 1.2 million coins £14.99 for 180,000 coins or 110 keys
The Simpsons Tapped Out Boatload of 2,400 "donuts" £79.99 for boatload of 2,400 "donuts
Zombies vs Ninja Various items, incl 90,000 darts £79.99 for 90,000 darts or 333 bombs
Bubble Galaxy with Buddies Galaxy of coins N/A (i)
Findings taken from each game's "top in-app purchases" list on Apple's App Store. (i) The app no longers seems to be listed on Apple's App Store.
Prevent huge bill shock as games firms told to stop pressuring kids to spend
Prevent huge bill shock as games firms told to stop pressuring kids

Prevent MASSIVE bills

If you play games online, you're usually asked to enter your debit card or PayPal details or to buy physical membership cards from various high street stores, which can be redeemed online through a unique code.

With apps it can be easier to spend as they're linked to your account details already. But either way, here are some tips below to prevent bill shock:

  • Protect your card details. Don't save your card details on your computer where kids can easily access them and use them to make online purchases.

  • Check your account for payments being taken every month. If there are payments going out each month you don't recognise, it could be that your child has bought an online subscription without telling you. Check for this and cancel them if you don't want them.

  • 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 Apple/iTunes and Google Play/Android.

- 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.

Games on Google Play that include in-app purchases have an 'offer in-app purchases' label under the buy or install button and for any games that are for children up to the age of 12, a password is required.

I've been hit with gaming fees. What can I do?

If you've been hit with fees for purchases your kids have unknowingly made, do the following:

  • If money's taken from your account, contact the game operator. If money's taken without your knowledge or consent, get in touch with the game operator to complain and demand a refund.

  • Ask the app store to cut the bill. If you've been stung by a massive charge, contact the app store where you bought the game from 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."

Are games firms allowed to charge excessive fees?

The now defunct Office of Fair Trading (OFT) published rules in January 2014 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.

The CMA also told us that major games sellers, Google and Apple, have both made positive changes following these rules being published, particularly around strengthening payment authorisation settings and by asking games makers to stop describing games as 'free' when they contain in-app purchases.

However, there is nothing in place that states how much games creators can charge. The ASA says companies are free to set their own prices.

ASA clampdown

Mind Candy Ltd and 55 Pixels Ltd must not display messages stating "become a member" and "join now" or other prominent calls to action to pressure kids to buy a subscription.

If they breach this ruling, the ASA can order the removal of adverts for the games, which appear on search engine results pages, and can list the companies in its 'name and shame' gallery, and pass on the firms' details to Trading Standards, which can take legal action.

A third game, Dragon City, has been referred to the Spanish ASA equivalent organisation, as it's outside of the UK ASA's jurisdiction.

The games were originally referred to the ASA in June by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) following its investigation into children's online and app-based games, amid concerns they breached the law. See the Children's online games referred to watchdog for investigation MSE News story.

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