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A cartoon from “The New Yorker” caught my eye back in 2000, when I was fairly new to writing and editing personal finance stories.
In the cartoon, dad’s sitting on the couch with his son, as mom stands in the background, fear in her eyes. A computer is in the other room. “It’s very important that you try very, very hard,” dad says to his son, “to remember where you electronically transferred Mommy and Daddy’s assets.”
Eleven years of electronic progress later, many of us are carrying around smartphones and tablet devices. With them come new and even easier ways for our children to drain our bank accounts — accidentally, through games aimed at an audience that lacks a firm grasp on the difference between real and imaginary money.
My colleague Matt Schulz got a lesson recently how a 4-year-old’s little fingers can poke a big hole in your savings.
I’ll turn it over to him:
“The day I got my iPad,” Matt says, “my son and I were playing a fishing game through the GameCenter that comes with every iPad. All you have to do is log in with your iTunes account, and you can play.
“I logged in, and he and I played for a few minutes, mostly just tapping on the screen to cast nets to catch various types of fish.
“After a few minutes, I walked away, for whatever reason, and left him to play by himself. When I came back, not more than a couple of minutes later, he asked me what he should do with the strange box that popped up on the screen.
“What did the box say? Something like this, ‘Are you sure you want to buy 200 coins for $69.99?’ I gasped and took the machine from him. I felt stupid for not being more cognizant of something like this happening.
“He was upset at first, but then I assured him that we weren’t mad at him.”
In the past week, another game made news for how readily it allows reality to intrude.
I’m talking about Smurfs and their costly Smurfberries.
Smurfs are the short, cute blue creatures that entered America’s pop culture through an ’80s cartoon series. Now the franchise is responsible for one of the iPhone’s most-lucrative apps — Smurf Village, a Farmville-like free download that has costly in-game premium features. In the cute village-building game, you can complete tasks faster if you purchase Smurfberries, and you’re never more than three screen-taps away from buying them — by the bucket ($4.99), the wheelbarrow ($59.99) or even by the wagon ($99.99).
The game’s maker, Beeline Interactive (formerly CapCom), has caught a lot of grief over it for incidents such as when an 8-year-old racked up a $1,400 bill from Apple.
The company beefed up its notices in response, so that when you start to make a purchase, you’re now warned, “Buying Smurfberries will charge your iTunes account” and “Smurfberries – Costs real money.”
Still, when your game is advertised as being for those age 4 and older, your target audience may not be that sophisticated in financial matters. The FTC is reviewing the situation and a class action lawsuit is brewing.
In the past week, Apple has placed new restrictions on how often you can purchase — five purchases within 15 minutes.
As the gaming website Touch Arcade helpfully notes, “[U]pdate your copy of the game and take comfort in the fact that at most you’ll only be accidentally spending $500 every 15 minutes on Smurfberries.”