OFT probes children’s games ‘cheats’ charges

INTERNET and smartphone games aimed at children that charge for extras are to be investigated by the Office of Fair Trading.

The OFT wants to find out if the games put undue pressure on children to pay for additional content amidst reports that many children have run up bills of hundreds of pounds buying “cheats”.

Although many games are free, revenue is generated by asking players to purchase pay coins, gems or other virtual items to speed their progress through levels.

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Extras are priced very differently, with some costing only a few pence, but the most high-priced were £70.

In January, regulator PhonePayPlus revealed it had seen a 300 per cent increase in complaints from consumers about the bills generated when they buy add-ons for games and other apps.

More than a quarter of children aged between five and 15 now own smartphones according to Ofcom, and many more have access to their parents’ devices.

This has led to the creation of an apps industry which has grown up around the increasing usage.

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The games are particularly popular with children as many of the characters featured are iconic figures like the the Smurfs and Playmobil.

The OFT wants to hear from parents who have seen firms aggressively pushing in-game content to their children.

As part of its investigation, the OFT wants to find out if the games are “misleading, commercially aggressive or otherwise unfair” when they give people the chance to buy extras. It also wants to find out if children are being specifically targeted by such applications.

“We are concerned that children and their parents could be subject to unfair pressure to purchase when they are playing games they thought were free, but which can actually run up substantial costs,” said Cavendish Elithorn, the OFT’s senior director for goods and cons

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The investigation comes alongside reports about children spending large sums on virtual items for smartphone and web games.

In March, five-year-old schoolboy Danny Kitchen, from Bristol, managed to rack up charges of more than £1700 while playing the Zombies versus Ninjas game on his parents’ iPad. The money has since been refunded by Apple.

Makers of games that strongly encourage children to buy or pressure them to ask parents to buy on their behalf could be breaking laws on fair trading, said the OFT.

Mr Elithorn said the OFT did not want to ban in-game purchases, but wanted to be sure that games-makers are complying with relevant laws.

Consumer groups or parents with evidence of games aggressively marketing in-game extras should contact the OFT, it said.

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