FTC agrees to investigate "deceptively free" iPhone games

The Federal Trade Commission has confirmed it will investigate mobile games that are advertised as free but then entice players into buying virtual goods within the game, especially those that target younger users. This comes after several complaints surfaced by parents who found out their children were racking up huge purchases without understanding what they were doing, including one young gamer who managed to download more than $1,400 in virtual Smurfs currency.

Smurfs Village leads the headlines for this story. It's a "free" iPhone game clearly targeting a young demographic. Once in the game, players are asked to spend Smurfberries at every turn. That problem is solved easily enough with a menu that offers the ability to buy more berries. Even though Smurfberries aren't real, the money used to buy them is.

Players are lured in by enticing pictures of huge bucketfulls of Smurfberries, and just a couple taps is all it takes to drain money out of an iPhone account holder's credit card and make players flush with in-game funds.

The app does ask users to confirm purchases, but as the FTC notes, some users may not fully understand what they're confirming. "Consumers, particularly children, are unlikely to understand the ramifications of these types of purchases," wrote FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz in a statement.

Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey responded, "What may appear in these games to be virtual coins and prizes to children result in very real costs to parents. I am pleased that the FTC has responded, and as the use of mobile apps continues to increase, I will continue to actively monitor developments in this important area."

The Smurfs game has gained so much attention because it exploded to the #1 spot of top-earning iPhone games. That's when the media learned of the easy microtransaction system in the game. There's even a button to purchase $100 in Smurfberries, which most rational, hard-working people would probably never click, but appears mouthwatering to players who think they're just innocently playing a game.

While some of the charges definitely come as the result of a parent legitimately buying berries for their kid, there is also controversy over the 15-minute user authentication buffer. A dad could download the Smurfs game onto his iPad and hand it over to his daughter to play. The daughter can then rack up as many charges as she wants for 15 minutes before the app will ask for re-verification of the account. Before you know it, your credit card statement's been smurfed right in the smurf.

Source: [Fierce Mobile Content]

Feb 23, 2011

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  • Person5 - February 25, 2011 1:44 p.m.

    I went to the app page for this game expecting to see one star for people being tricked, somehow, it has 5 stars, that is quite confusing ReCaptcha: funding plinstar, let us all fund plinstar!
  • Crimmy - February 24, 2011 8:52 p.m.

    Idiots. That's all I can say. How the Smurf could any parent could let their 4y/o kid play video games? They should make their child go play outside.
  • db1331 - February 24, 2011 1:13 p.m.

    This is why phone "gaming" is becoming so popular. It's not because the games are good, or the platform itself offers some incredible experience. It's because developers know exactly how stupid the people that play this shit are. Don't let me catch a single one of you assholes that can't stfu about how awesome your latest $1 game is complaining about how shallow and dumbed down games have become in the next 5 years.
  • mausjake - February 24, 2011 6:34 a.m.

    Yeah I decided, it's official... Anytime a bait in switch is involved, a picture of a smurf is to be used along with it...
  • mausjake - February 24, 2011 6:32 a.m.

    First off, do we have a new meme? And second, yes it may be kinda screwed up, but come on, props to the guys that made this game. It's a total bait n switch, but still... *Slow Claps*
  • FreedomPhantom - February 24, 2011 5:04 a.m.

    I think this means don't let your kids play with your phones/computers. 'nuff said
  • BigDannyH - February 24, 2011 8:24 p.m.

    Usually these things have been blown out of proportion, but this is a rancid scam. What could this iPhone game possibly do that's worth $60 worth of smurf berries? $60!!! And it looks like they didn't even last that long if they had to keep buying 'em. Smurfette turning tricks to keep her Smurfberry Jam company afloat. I blame the credit crunch.
  • Spybreak8 - February 24, 2011 5:06 a.m.

    @kilorabbit the girl got the password from her older sister and thus huge smurfin' credit bill. You know it's funny they're playing a zombie game and they don't even smurfin' know it! ^^
  • NotBraze - February 24, 2011 4:55 a.m.

    @killorabbit, it takes a couple of days for iTunes transactions to go through, I've noticed, so it's completely conceivable that a parent downloads this "free" app for their kid, hands over the iPhone, and the kid goes to town over a couple days buying buckets of Smurf berries, and the parent is blissfully unaware until the email statement comes in five days later.
  • djrdotwow - February 24, 2011 4:38 a.m.

    Papa Smurf said I was in charge of the money and Papa Smurf knows best...But Papa smurf didn't realize that this game was tied to his Iphone account and now Papa Smurf is furious
  • killorabbit - February 24, 2011 3:14 a.m.

    I thought that was the point in those games, to slowly drain the semi-naive players of funds, all blissfully unaware how much cash they are burning. Why is this getting them into trouble? I'm glad that child got the refund but how did an 8 year old link a bank card to an iPhone? Why would an 8 year old need either? Guessing it belonged to a parent, which begs the question HOW did she rack up a bill that large on such cheap digital items? If it was fairly swiftly, why did the bank not phone?
  • EnragedTortoise1 - February 24, 2011 3:03 a.m.

    It's about smurfin' time that someone took a look at this smurftacular smurf-fest of bait-and-switch smurf. Also, Gameloft, those smurftards, have been resorting to this business model of late. Their new games are totally free, and there's no lite symbol- but after you finish the first level, you have to smurfin' pay! It's just smurfin' ridiculous. I'll shut up now. Smurf.
  • NightCrawler_358 - February 24, 2011 2:58 a.m.

    Thats a lot of smurfin' money! Maybe the moral here is that if you're going to play games, even horrible games like this "smurf berry" one, then you should at least have some common sense. paying 100$ for some virtual berries on your iphone sounds pretty smurfin' stupid to me.

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