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Whose Fault Is It If Your Child Spends $2,000 On A 'Free' Online Game?

The apps are free, but playing them can cost your kids a lot of money they don't quite realizing they are spending. Caveat emptor? Or grounds for a lawsuit?
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You child goes online and, with a couple of clicks, spends $200 (or $2,000) on the extras she needs to play "free" video game apps.

Whose fault is that? Your child's? Your own?

More than a few parents are trying to blame Apple.

The parents of Jack Drager are among them. Late last year the English boy spent about $2,084 over four days buying animals to play an iPad app called Tap Zoo. The app was free, but the animals used to play it weren't, and after some angry exchanges with Jack's parents, Apple refunded their money.

Philadelphia lawyer Garen Meguerian is another upset parent. He received an iTunes bill a while back that included $200 worth of "extras" -- virtual game pieces and currency and such -- that his 9-year-old daughter purchased to play "free" apps like "Zombie Toxin" and "Gems." According to the website Gamezebo, about 65 percent of the Apple app store's income is generated by "freemium games" like these, "which have no upfront cost, but charge for upgrades inside the games." Meguerian brought a class action suit against Apple, charging that it produces games that are "addictive" to kids and that company policy makes add-ons far too easy to purchase.

Apple responded by saying that the point was moot, since it has since changed the way it charges for those add-ons so that a child would now need her parents' iTunes password for each purchase. Previously -- back when the apps first came to Meguerian's attention -- entering the password once would unlock the account for 15 minutes, a window which, the case alleges, allowed children to make purchases without parental knowledge or permission.

This week a Federal District Court judge ruled that the change did not make the lawsuit moot, agreeing that even if parents gave children their passwords, the costs of playing what is advertised as a "free" game is arguably misleading. But while Meguerien may have persuaded a judge, he is not getting much traction in the blogosphere, where the feeling seems to be this is less a question of a company taking advantage of children and more an example of parents not controlling them.

Here's the take over at

Apple's defense is pretty bulletproof. Marketing to children isn't exactly some new advertising strategy. Have you seen a toy commercial recently? As long as Apple requires authorization to purchase, in-app or out, what are they doing wrong? If a child gained access to his parent's credit card, went online and purchased some toys, you wouldn't hold the ISP, or networks that air commercials, or the toy company responsible for it. You'd blame the parent who left the credit card lying around, or maybe the kid if you're his parent and he was nefarious about getting ahold of it. Even so, it's still your problem.

And, agreed:

In the meantime the parents involved in this lawsuit may want to think about actually parenting. If they are worried their children are not responsible enough to game responsibly perhaps they shouldn't be buying them $500 iPads and iPhones in the first place. It shouldn't be the responsibility of Apple to babysit a parents child because they are too lazy too do it themselves and that is likely the very argument Apple will make when this case moves forward.

True. But free-apps-that-aren't-free and that children can access (and spend wildly on with what seems like a harmless click) is just one more addition to the endless game of Whack-A-Mole that parents play with technology.

No, marketing to children isn't new, and, in this case, it will probably turn out to be legal. But just because Apple can lure kids with $100 baskets of smurfberries (really, that's what they cost), does that mean that they should? Time was when it was legal to market cigarettes to children, too, no?

In the meantime, add "talking to the kids about the meaning of the word 'free'" to your parenting to-do list.