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UK News: Parents reveal their kids spent a fortune on upgrades to free games

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As the father of three young children, Muhammed Murtaza knows only too well how precious even the odd minute or two of peace and quiet can be in a busy day.

So when his seven-year-old son Ashaz asked to play a game on his iPhone, he was happy to oblige. What he only discovered later was that during the course of the next hour, a bill of almost £1,300 would be run up on the device.

Initially Mr Murtaza, a consultant endocrinologist, believed he must have been the victim of a scam. But when he checked a list of emailed receipts he discovered that the bill had been incurred as his son played a monster game called Dragons: Rise of Berk.

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Keen to keep the game going, it transpired that Ashaz had clicked on every in-game purchasing option offered to him — unaware that each click was costing his dad anything between £1.99 and £99.99.

'I never thought it would be possible to spend that much on a kids' game — the game is four-plus,' said Mr Murtaza, 41, who lives with his wife, Fatima, 37, along with Ashaz, Areefa, 11, and one-year-old Aliyah in Colwyn Bay, north Wales.

He added: 'It's not even limited to one click a day. You could click 'purchase' 10,000 times and spend a million pounds on it in half an hour.'

Despite twice challenging the charges, Mr Murtaza has only been refunded £207. To clear the bill, he has had to sell the family's second car, a Toyota Aygo.

'It literally had almost maxed out my credit card, and these days you live on your credit card,' he said. 'When you have three kids and spend 40 per cent of your wages on childcare you don't have lots of expendable income.'

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That sentiment will be familiar to parents who have found themselves with an equally unexpected bill. Because where in the past the cost of a video game consisted solely of its one-off up-front purchase price, many of today's games work on a different financial model.

Often free to download, players then purchase add-ons or upgrades as they play. These may be for distinctive costumes to clothe their character in or short-cuts that allow players to progress more quickly through virtual challenges.

While these can cost just a few pounds, cumulatively in-app game purchases bring in more than a £1 billion a year for gaming companies in the UK alone.

Which is all well and good if the player understands what they are buying. But what if a child is making the purchases unknowingly or without the permission of parents?

Of course, there are steps that can be taken to prevent this happening. All devices have options to lock card details with a password or to disable purchasing completely.

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But, as an NSPCC survey found in 2019, as few as one in five parents actually activate controls on their children's devices to do this. Also, they aren't foolproof. In the case of the Murtaza family, Ashaz's father believes his son sneakily remembered the password while looking over his shoulder.

In any case, campaigners argue that it is wrong to blame parents for not taking adequate precautions. After all, they say, these games are designed to encourage players to spend as much money as they can.

'Online games use a range of 'dark nudge' techniques that put psychological pressure on children to spend,' Vicki Shotbolt, CEO of Parent Zone, an organisation that specialises in digital family life, told the Mail.

'Our research has revealed the exploitative business model underlying these games and, shockingly, showed that almost half of children think online gaming is only fun if they're spending money. This exploitation of the right to play clearly does not have children's best interests at heart and needs to be regulated.'

After 18 months of lockdowns, it will come as little surprise to learn that the video game industry is booming. In 2020, the UK market reached a record £7 billion, up almost a third on the previous year and beating 2018's previous record by more than a billion pounds.

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Surveys show that two-thirds of adults and more than 90 per cent of children played games on an electronic device last year. Even pre-schoolers are at it. Research shows that nearly half of three to four-year-olds own their own tablet and one in 20 have their own smartphone.

In the past, a game would have been bought on a disk. Today's are usually downloaded and played on any device with an internet connection.

These online games allow interactions with other players. Particularly popular with girls are creative games such as Roblox and Minecraft, while boys tend to prefer console-based competitive games such as Fortnite and Call Of Duty.

Many of these games are free-to-play, meaning they can be downloaded without cost. Instead, they rely on in-app monetisation strategies.

For a small sum, players can enhance their capabilities, unlock content in the game, or just improve the look of the player's avatar. Once purchased, transactions tend to be made through the game's own currency, such as Robux on Roblox, Minecoins on Minecraft and Fortnite V-Bucks.

With a third of gamers admitting to spending money on in-game purchases, these microtransactions are big business for the games companies. But they can also be a headache for parents who may end up paying for the purchases if the device used is linked to their bank account. According to Ofcom, half of parents of children aged 12 to 15 who play online games are worried about the pressure to make in-game purchases.

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It is a point highlighted by Parent Zone in a report entitled: The Rip-Off Games — How The New Business Model Of Online Gaming Exploits Children.

Its research found that 75 per cent of children believe online video games try to make you spend as much as possible, with half saying they were only 'fun' when you did spend money.

The report observed: 'Modern games are no longer products you buy and use. They have become a gateway for perpetual spending opportunities. We argue that this has led to the exploitation of children, who are constantly being 'nudged' to keep on spending money.'

Just how quickly the spending can add up is all too familiar to Kerensa Robertson, a civil servant from Billericay, Essex.

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After giving her daughter Delphi an iPad for Christmas, she downloaded a free-to-play game called Animal Jam. To get her started Ms Robertson, 47, entered her card details to buy £10 of 'gems' to purchase virtual items used in the game.

What she did not appreciate was that having made that purchase, the card remained open for then seven-year-old Delphi to use. 'I only realised that there was a problem when I got a notification from the bank to say that I was overdrawn,' she said.

'I thought: 'I can't be!' But, logging on, she discovered that £350 had been taken from her bank in a week, all the debits showing as payments to Apple. 'There were hundreds of 99p purchases and one for £49.99 for a 'wolf simulator'. I was just horrified. At first I thought I'd been hacked but after talking to the bank realised what had happened. Delphi had been playing the game and been literally pressing buy, buy, buy, buy, buy.'

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After a lengthy wait, she managed to get through to Apple. Because of her daughter's age and because she was able to explain she had not given permission for the purchases, Apple agreed to refund the money — but only after going through every transaction.

'Judging from their reaction it made me think it must be incredibly common,' she said. 'They also gave me tips to disable my bank card from in-app purchases.

'I immediately took it off and there were no more purchases after that. Delphi had not realised what she had done — she had no idea it was charging. She thought it was all part and parcel of playing on an iPad. I couldn't really tell her off because it was my mistake —but it was something we both learned from and I certainly wouldn't fall for that trick again.'

Seeking a repayment is not easy as it can be unclear who to contact for a refund — the maker or the platform it is downloaded from.

In Mr Murtaza's case, he says that other than the small refund, Apple had refused to pay any more of the money back.

Asked about the incident, the tech giant said it was unwilling to comment on an individual case but added that they take such incidents 'very seriously'. A spokesman said parents can use a number of features such as Parental Controls, iCloud Family Sharing and Ask to Buy to ensure mistakes like these do not happen.

The spokesman also said Apple would encourage parents not to give children access to passwords and passcodes.

Just how hard it can be to get a refund is highlighted by the experience of Susie Breare. Her 24-year-old son Michael lost £3,000 of his life savings on a 'free' game on his iPad over the course of just two days. Michael suffers with cerebral palsy, is almost blind in one eye, on the autistic spectrum, suffers with complex epilepsy and has the cognitive ability of a seven-year-old.

After two days of bad seizures on holiday in Turkey in 2019, he spent his time playing a game called Hidden Artifacts, which led to him racking up the massive bill.

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Mrs Breare, 63, who is her son's full-time carer, explained how he repeatedly bought sets of coins for £4.99 but 'had no idea' about the amount of money being spent.

She said: 'The problem is that it was virtual coins so somebody like Michael would have no idea that if you get a coin it is going to take money out of your bank account. There were also no security checks. He has fingertip and facial recognition so he has to either look at it or just put his fingerprint on it and money is taken from his account.'

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Getting a refund took ten months. After repeatedly failing to get through to the app developer and game provider Blastworks Ltd, she hatched a plan to buy shares in the company so that she would be invited to their Annual General Meeting as a shareholder.

She said: 'One day I managed to get through to somebody in the company and told him: 'I bought shares in your company. I will be coming to your AGM and I will be raising this issue.'

'I don't know whether I hit a nerve with him. I've got a feeling he had a handicapped child himself, but they said: 'We will pay you back'.' Mrs Breare, from the Isle of Wight, received a full refund.

Frustratingly, last year Michael lost another £800 when using other apps on his phone. She is still fighting to get the companies responsible to give refunds.

Mrs Breare dismisses suggestions she should put parental controls on Michael's devices, saying they restrict what he can do on his iPad which is a 'lifeline' for him.

She said: 'If I put parental controls on, he would be saying, 'Mum, I can't watch the news.' The news is blocked as it might have a swear word in it — it's hopeless.'

But Andy Robertson, tech expert and author of Taming Gaming, a book which advises parents on how children can use video games safely, says it is essential that parents take control. 'It isn't an issue of blame — it's an issue of understanding,' he says. 'This is a new thing and we need to help parents understand how this works.

'Once you are aware of that, there are some really good tools and controls in every video game console so that you can very specifically say that when I put my credit card details in, whoever is using this cannot spend money without my PIN. You do need to spend half an hour setting these devices up but it isn't difficult.'

It is a message reiterated by The Association for UK Interactive Entertainment, the trade association for the UK's games and interactive entertainment industry.

'The games industry takes its responsibility to players of all ages seriously, especially in regards to in-game spending,' a spokesperson told the Mail. 'We urge parents and carers to use controls that are available on all devices to help manage or stop in-game spend to prevent accidental spending.

'We recommend they check platforms, age ratings and services like the Family Game Database for information about which games contain in-game purchases.

'We also encourage them to head to askaboutgames.com for advice from our Get Smart About Play campaign, which helps parents to turn on controls and features wider tips on managing spend in games.'

It's advice that could stop parents losing a lot of money — in very little time.

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