How to avoid costly app bills

Ensure you are safe from your children’s sky-high app bills.

Home screen of Apple iPhone 3GS

It’s all too easy to allow your children to buy expensive add-ons to iPad games. Photo: Alamy
Many parents will happily hand over their iPhone or iPad to their children in a bid to get a few moments of peace and quiet. But few are aware of the financial pitfalls that can be caused by just a few flicks of a finger.

This week, a six-year-old boy left his family with a £2,000 credit card bill after using an app on his grandfather’s iPad. The youngster had spent the amount on a special app which involves children “collecting” and “breeding” their own online creatures.

To the relief of the grandparents, Apple refunded the money once the situation was explained. However, not all families are so lucky.

While free downloadable apps can keep children of all ages amused for hours, many offer expensive add-ons that are supposed to improve the gaming experience. These “in-app purchases” might include virtual credits for buying items in the game, special abilities for game characters, additional levels not accessible in the free version of the game, or the ability to skip a level that might be challenging.

Even the most popular – and seemingly harmless – mobile games possess in-app purchases, from a “Mighty Eagle” that automatically clears levels in Angry Birds to packs of extra turns in Flight Control.

The economics behind this have spawned the term “freemium” to describe the practice of offering a free app with expensive enhancements. As gaming apps have become more sophisticated, the risks to parents have become greater. This ‘freemium’ model initially took off on Facebook, where money is charged for expediting progress or additional content.

The fees are not to be scoffed at; some games charge as much as £70 per purchase. Freemium apps use the iTunes purchase mechanism to streamline the process, so it is easy to buy items without leaving the game. In some cases gamers don’t even have to type in credit card details or a password.

And as many parents have found, it’s this ease of purchase that is the greatest risk. With Smurf Village, for instance, the cheapest in-app purchase costs £2.99, but a wagon-full of virtual “Smurfberries” can be had for £69.99, all at the tap of a finger. The charges will be billed to the iTunes account and credit card associated with the gadget.

For those who wish to ensure they are protected, updating software is very straightforward and should take just an hour or so. The following tips should ensure you can safely hand your phone to your children.

Update the software

“Updating the software on an iPad or iPhone can be done on the device itself,” Mr Wiggins said. “To check if a newer version is available to download and install, parents should go to the ‘Settings’ menu, scroll down and select ‘General’, then choose ‘Software Update’.”

Apple recommends always backing up data before updating or restoring. To learn how to do this, visit

If you choose to update when you are not connected to your computer, you will need to use Wi‑Fi instead of 3G, as the file size will be too big.

Alternatively, if you connect your device to your computer, a pop-up window will say if your software is out of date and you will be prompted to install the latest version.

Disable the purchase function

Another option is to disable the in-app purchases function on your Apple device. To do this, go to “Settings”, select “General”, tap “Restrictions” and select “Enable Restrictions”. Here you must create a unique four-digit passcode, then scroll down to “Allowed Content” and turn off “In-app Purchases”.

Bear in mind that unless you adjust the time necessary before a password is required to purchase content, it will automatically allocate a 15-minute time limit. This will mean that if it has been less than a quarter of an hour since you downloaded the app or made an in-app purchase, your children will not be required to type in your password again, potentially racking up a huge bill without inputting any additional details.

Use Airplane Mode

Even if you aren’t flying, this will block all downloads and in-app purchases. To do this on an iPhone or iPad, go to “General”, select “Settings” and then turn “Airplane Mode” to the on setting.

Gift card option

For the parents of teenagers who wish to make purchases on their own device, but who do not have their own bank account, using an iTunes gift card instead of your credit card will help avoid unwanted costs.

Get Google savvy

It is not only Apple products that can leave parents facing potentially hefty bills. With Google’s Android, in-app purchasing is also problem, but, as with the iPhone and iPad, there is protection available.

To ensure your Android is safe, always activate the “Screen lock” function, which will force users to enter a pattern, pin or a password on the device each time an item is to be bought. To set this up simply go to “Settings” then “Security” – and then you can choose and set it.

Similarly, removing bank details from “Google Checkout” can stop this function from being exploited. To remove your information, go to the “Google Checkout” site and log into your account.

On the left of the screen will be a link called “Edit payment methods”. Follow that and you will get a list of your accounts. Remove your financial details with the delete button. The Android Market will pull your payment information directly from Google Checkout so no apps can be purchased – by yourself or your children. For future purchases, simply re-enter the details on your account.


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