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Little fingers rack up big bills on smartphone games

PARENTS are being warned that it is child's play for kids to run up astronomical bills on their parent's smartphone or computer with a few taps of their fingers.

The charges, which can add up to thousands of euro in some cases, are incurred through apparently free games targeted specifically at children.

Dublin dad Trevor Ecock was astonished when his young son ran up a whopping bill of €274 in a few days buying games and virtual coins on his iPhone in less than a week.

"The game he was playing was a free game, 'Subway Surfers', when he downloaded it on to my phone. I discovered he had been buying millions of coins. I think he bought 1.2 million coins in one day.

"The most expensive vault of coins I saw on the game when I looked at it afterwards was €89.99. This all happened in less than a week last December.

"They are giving the game for free and they are not telling you it is going to cost you to operate the game.

"He could have run it up beyond belief. Scott is seven. He was oblivious to what he had done. I have since found out other games cost money once kids start to play them."

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The dad of four stressed that Apple had almost immediately refunded the bill of €274.32 when he explained that his seven-year-old had run up the bill.

RTE's 'Consumer Show' is set to expose the problem and offer parents advice on how to deal with it tonight on RTE One at 8.30pm.

Despite the issue, there is no Irish agency with powers to oversee the smartphone app and game industry – a rapidly growing sector that is increasingly targeting children for its revenue.

The communications regulator, ComReg confirmed to the Irish Independent that it had no power to oversee the regulation of apps downloaded on to smart phones or tablets. Cyber threat adviser Paul C Dwyer isn't surprised by this.

"This technology is developing far quicker than legislation is keeping up with it so as a consequence there are a lot of things out there that clearly are wrong but are not illegal," he said.

Dermot Jewell of the Consumers' Association believes Ireland needs proper legislation to regulate the area but agrees that ComReg's ability to bring developers to heel is limited.

"ComReg regulates the carrier but realistically, unless the app is downloaded from the Irish iTunes store, it's going to be difficult for them," he said.

The Consumers' Association wants additional passcodes to be inserted in free apps and games which provide access to paid-for content. It is also calling for rules governing apps similar to recently introduced roaming safeguards.

Irish Independent