Apple Clamps Down on Juvenile In-App Purchases

young man excited with his iPhone - in-App PurchasesA recent software update from Apple will make it harder for kids to rack up big bills on their parents' iPods, iPads and iPhones.

The company's latest operating system software includes a timer to limit inadvertent purchases by children while playing games on Apple's must-have mobile devices.

A spate of news reports last year documented case after case of children downloading hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars worth of digital goodies via iTunes while playing games on iPods, iPads and iPhones.In one case, a Florida father learned his debit card was hit with a $613 charge for digital fish his youngster purchased while playing the "Tap Fish" iPhone application. In another, the child of a Business Week reporter bought $375 worth of virtual pearls wile playing the application, or "app."

One frantic parent posted the following message about Tap Fish to a Web forum: "Help! My 6 year old bought $1,300 worth of 'Fish Bucks' off of iTunes!"

What many parents and kids didn't realize was the fact that while "Tap Fish" is a free app, it also permits "in-app purchases," which allows users to splurge on virtual items while playing the game.

Apple initially refused to allow in-app purchases for free apps, possibly to avoid just these situations -- but reversed itself in October 2009, after intense pressure from software developers.

Once users entered their iTunes passwords in Apple's previous mobile operating system software, the devices allowed unlimited purchases for 15 minutes within iTunes or any app before prompting the user to reenter their password -- a sizable window of opportunity for nimble-fingered children.

According to the Associated Press, Apple's new iOS 4.3 software includes a 15-minute password-free timer for the App Store and iTunes, as well as a separate timer for in-app purchases, which should reduce the cost to parents of their kids playing "free" games.

The updated software, however, won't prevent all shock purchases, like the 11-year-old in California who accidentally downloaded a $999.99 bar exam prep app from iTunes while playing with his parents' iPod touch.

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