Google will repay at least $19 million to the parents of children who incurred illegal charges while using mobile apps downloaded from the Google Play store. Children are not legally able to enter into contracts, a fact that has been widely known for centuries but which has somehow escaped the notice of many online ventures until recently.
Google has also agreed to modify its billing practices to ensure that it obtains express, informed consent from consumers before charging them -- or their children -- for items sold in mobile apps.
The settlement results from a Federal Trade Commission complaint that accused Google of billing consumers for charges by children made within kids’ apps downloaded from the Google Play store. Many consumers reported hundreds of dollars of such unauthorized charges beginning in 2011, according to the complaint.
Google employees referred to the issue as “friendly fraud” and “family fraud” and tried to tell complaining parents they would have to pursue refunds from the app developer rather than Google, the FTC charged.
Under the terms of the settlement, Google will provide full refunds – with a minimum payment of $19 million – to consumers who were charged for kids’ purchases without authorization of the account holder.
The settlement requires Google to contact all consumers who placed an in-app charge to inform them of the refund process for unauthorized in-app charges by children within 15 days of the order being finalized. Google must make these refunds promptly, upon request from an account holder.
“For millions of American families, smartphones and tablets have become a part of their daily lives,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “As more Americans embrace mobile technology, it’s vital to remind companies that time-tested consumer protections still apply, including that consumers should not be charged for purchases they did not authorize.”
It's the third case involving unauthorized in-app charges by children. In January, the Commission announced a settlement requiring Apple to provide full refunds to consumers who were billed for unauthorized charges by children – paying a minimum amount of $32.5 million – and obtain express, informed consent for in-app charges. Amazon is facing similar charges.
In-app charges are a component of many apps available from Google Play and can range from 99 cents to $200. In many apps used by children, users are invited to accumulate virtual items that help them advance in the game, though as the FTC’s complaint notes, the lines between virtual money purchases and real money purchases can be blurred.
Left holding the bill
The FTC’s complaint alleges that Google billed consumers for many such charges by children without obtaining account holders’ authorization, leaving consumers holding the bill.
When Google first introduced in-app charges to the Google Play store in 2011, the complaint alleges, Google billed for such charges without any password requirement or other method to obtain account holder authorization. Children could incur in-app charges simply by clicking on popup boxes within the app as they used it.
According to the complaint, in mid- to late 2012, Google began presenting a pop-up box that asked for the account holder’s password before billing in-app charges. The new pop-up, however, did not contain any information about the charge. Google also did not inform consumers that entering the password opened up a 30-minute window in which a password was no longer required, allowing children to rack up unlimited charges during that time.
During this time, many thousands of consumers complained to Google about children making unauthorized in-app charges, according to the complaint. Some parents noted that their children had spent hundreds of dollars in in-app charges without their consent. Others noted that children buying virtual in-game items with real money were unaware they were causing their parents to be billed.