PRESSURE is growing on video game and console makers to overhaul the charging systems that allow children to buy expensive “extras”, leaving parents with unexpected bills running to hundreds of pounds.
A poll of 1,300 parents, by Netmums for The Sunday Times, revealed that 21% had faced large bills after a child bought game extras, and 96% thought companies should make it more difficult for children to spend their parents’ money.
Anthony Pearlgood of Chislehurst, Kent, was shocked to receive a credit card bill of more than £800 after his son, Sam, 15, who has learning difficulties, bought extra points to buy players for the football game Fifa 14 on his PlayStation.
Pearlgood said he received none of the emails Sony claims to send whenever a purchase is made, and that after four months of complaints Sony refused to refund the money. Other Sunday Times readers have had similar problems with the football game. One parent received a monthly bill of £830 for Fifa 13 without realising her credit card details had been stored on her 10-year-old son’s account. She said: “I used the credit card to make one purchase for my son of £5. Sony said our IP address would be banned if we did not make the payments.”
Another reader saw £700 debited from his account after his 12-year-old son made 31 purchases on Fifa 14 in just 14 days, an average transaction cost of £22.58.
The game, made by Electronic Arts (EA), allows players to buy extra points for sums ranging from 79p to £31.99. EA told The Sunday Times it was making improvements to ensure greater clarity about costs but declined to say what they were.
Sony, which administers the charging system for PlayStation consoles, said it believed its terms and conditions were clear, and it received only a small number of complaints about excessive bills. It said customers should create a sub-account for their children and then use parental controls, such as a restriction on spending. Jo Swinson, the consumer affairs minister, told The Sunday Times that if children “mistakenly rack up astonishing bills for in-game purchases” parents should speak with the company and see if “an amicable solution” can be reached.
She said: “We took steps earlier this year to strengthen the law so that prices for any additional purchases need to be displayed in a clear and easily understandable format.” However, Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said the industry must take action to end hidden costs and protect families.
Parents are also suffering from costly extras bought for “free” games on smartphones or tablets.
Skylanders, produced by Activision, requires additional characters to complete the game. According to the official Nintendo magazine, this could cost up to £282.
Anna Emslie, from Southend, Essex, received a £600 bill after her son Benny, 8, bought extras on the Diamond Dash iPhone game.
The Netmums survey revealed parents worry about addictive and pricy extras for games, including Candy Crush, Spongebob, Call of Duty, Peppa Pig and Minecraft.
Figures from Phonepay Plus, the premium-rate phone number regulator, show complaints about children’s apps and games have almost trebled in a year. This month it fined Acetelecom £60,000 for failing to cap its voice changer service, which it marketed at young children. Some parents faced bills of up to £150.
Siobhan Freegard, co-founder of Netmums, said: “It is frustrating and annoying that games manufacturers are targeting kids within games to buy extras.
“Pushing these extras at kids is seen by many parents as, at best greedy, and at worst dubious marketing practice. At the very least they must change the set-up so parents have to clearly opt in.”
Sarah Pennells, founder of money advice site savvywoman.co.uk, said: “Parents must be aware that these games can be anything but free. Until the games companies take their responsibilities seriously, one solution might be to link a prepaid card to your tablet account so your child can’t run up a huge bill without you knowing.”
Last month the European Commission told video games makers to improve the way they label their online games. Google will stop labelling apps as “free” whenever games contain in-app purchases.
The Competition and Markets Authority said it was monitoring the market to ensure children do not make unauthorised payments.
There is no ombudsman covering games consoles, but customers can contact Citizens Advice or complain to Phonepay Plus for phone games.
The Independent Games Developers Association said: “Parents must check what children are watching on television; they must watch when they’re playing outside. It’s the same with gaming; they have to oversee what they’re doing.”
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