Mom warns parents after son charges $16K on in-app game purchases


(NEW YORK) — A Connecticut mother has a message for parents after she said her 6-year-old racked up thousands of dollars on in-app purchases while playing his favorite video game on an iPad.

Jessica Johnson, a resident of Wilton, told ABC News’ Good Morning America that over the summer, her son George spent a total of $16,293.10 in Apple App Store charges to purchase rings on the game Sonic Forces. Johnson said her PayPal account had been linked to the iPad.

Johnson shared her experience with her Facebook moms group in hopes she could keep this incident from happening again.

“As a mother of young children, I thought it was important for other parents to be aware of it,” Johnson said. “It’s unfortunate, because we’re all in a pandemic, we’re all working from home. We are working really hard to keep our kids entertained while getting work done. We’re [sometimes] inclined to say, ‘Here, take the iPad.’ I think, clearly, it backfired in my case.”

Johnson, a real estate broker and mother of two, said that on July 9, she noticed the same charge of $106.34 appear on her bank statement 12 times in a row. In a transaction report shared by Johnson with GMA, there were also lesser charges of $53.16 and several more in the $200 to $600 range.

Johnson said she contacted her bank about the activity. The bank informed her in October she would be responsible for the charges and suggested she reach out to Apple. Johnson said she contacted Apple as well as Sega, the video game developer that owns Sonic the Hedgehog.

Sega has not yet responded to GMA’s request for comment.

Johnson said she got a call from Apple on Tuesday, and the company agreed to refund her a portion of her money.

“They refunded me back 10,553.86,” she said, adding that she does not know the significance of the dollar amount.

Apple confirmed to GMA it was able to provide Johnson with a refund for all the charges the company was able to identify.

“For over a decade, the App Store has proved to be the safest and most trusted place to discover and download apps,” Apple told GMA in a statement, stressing that its products have tools implemented to help customers actively protect themselves and their families.

“We understand mistakes can still happen and work with customers to investigate, educate them on the tools available for their protection and, in this case, provided the customer with a refund,” Apple said.

Johnson said she had a password set on the iPad, which she and her children share, though she believes her settings allowed for a one-time password entry.

“I didn’t realize there was a setting where the child could continue to buy without the password after a certain amount of time,” she said. “There are various settings that now I’m learning about.”

Apple said its customers are provided with built-in tools to help parents manage their child’s use of devices. These resources also aim to protect families against unauthorized in-app charges. The tools include parental controls, the ability to set up an Apple ID for each member of the family, family sharing and enabling “Ask to Buy,” where if kids want to purchase or download a new item, they send a request to their family organizer, who can then approve or decline the request.

According to Apple, customers can require a password for every purchase or require a password every 15 minutes. They can also choose how often they’d like to enter a password when buying items, including in-app purchases, from the App Store and iTunes Store,

“Always Require” means every time you make a purchase, you’ll be asked to enter your password, even if you’re signed in with your Apple ID.

“Require After 15 Minutes” means if a password was entered within the last 15 minutes, the customer won’t be asked to enter the password again.

Within parental controls, customers can manage in-app purchases and Ask to Buy, keep track of family’s app usage, create app limits, only allow kid-safe apps and set up downtime for specific times when apps and notifications are blocked.

Johnson said it was a positive outcome when Apple reached out to her to help remedy the issue.

She said she wants to bring attention to how games are designed for children.

“It’s intentionally designed to be a brain chemistry experience that one would get as an adult in a casino,” Johnson added.

In Sonic Forces, players compete for rings in exchange to upgrade characters. In-app purchases include 150 red star rings for $1.99 to a bundle of 17,500 priced at $99.99.

Johnson said she asked her child if he remembered how many bundles he clicked to buy, but he didn’t have a sure answer.

“It’s creating a compulsion to want to keep going,” Johnson said of the game. “I think that’s what drove my son to keep pushing the button, get more players, to run faster.”

News outlets picked up Johnson’s story after parents responded to her in social networking groups, exchanging tips on maximizing privacy settings and sharing parenting tactics on how to handle kids and screen time.

Johnson said if you’re sharing a device, default to the setting you’d use for your child.

“And look over your kid’s shoulder,” she added. “See what they’re really seeing.”

Becky Worley, GMA’s tech contributor and correspondent, agreed. Many games that appeal to children have in-app purchases, and parents should check for those each time a game is downloaded.

“Passwords are private. It may seem counterintuitive, like you’re keeping secrets from your kids, but it’s a way to protect them and yourself,” Worley said. “Kids should not have access to any in-app purchasing without parental oversight.”

Worley echoed Johnson, saying parents should learn what their children are doing online. Talk about things like in-app purchases, and — better yet — play with them, Worley said.

“Parents need to be asking questions like, ‘Who do you play with?’ ‘What do you like about a game?’ and ‘When do you know that you’ve played too much?’” Worley said, adding that parents should check devices to make sure children can’t install apps without your permission and set up kids’ devices using parental controls so parents can monitor use from their own devices.

Johnson said she has since made changes to her kids’ media intake and enforced new rules in her home.

She’s taken away device privileges and instead purchased a gaming console.

“They can’t buy anything, to my knowledge, from that game,” Johnson said, adding that she changed all her passwords and no longer allows unattended technology use.

Johnson also said she was careful on how she disciplined her first grader after he charged the large sum to her bank account.

“He was very apologetic, and he’s a sensitive kid,” she explained. “You think about the part of losing the money, but you never think about the kid … them being afraid of getting in trouble.”

Dr. Stephanie Samar, a clinical psychologist at the Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, said parents should ask themselves what lessons they want their child to learn.

One lesson is to learn what money is, Samar said, which requires knowing how to make that a tangible concept.

“Even if they aren’t earning chore money, what would be the equivalent of paying back $16,000 at this age?” she asked.

Samar said kids might be happy to do a few extra chores around the house if they owe a debt. This way, it’s something they can control in order to make amends — especially if they’re feeling guilty.

However, she added, it’s important parents don’t drag out the punishment and relay to the child that they’re forgiven.

As for technology use, Samar suggests making a rule that kids go to mom and or dad whenever something new pops up on-screen.

“Instead of clicking on it, make these decisions together,” she said.

Samar added, “As the brain maturates, we are able to resist impulse more and more. But really, at the age of 6 … it’s really hard not to [click] in these quick engagements within these apps.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics told Good Morning America in March it recognized children would be using more screen media during the pandemic “whether for entertainment, education or social connection.”

One of the organization’s top tips for managing screens is to make a plan.

“Talk with your kids about what your daily structure will be, how you will handle stress and when you will take breaks from tele-work or schoolwork to relax and connect with each other,” the AAP wrote on its website.

The AAP published a list of ways to deal with increased screen time, which include using media together and finding offline activities.

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