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UK Office of Fair Trading probes free games with in-app purchases targeting children

After a rash of highly publicised instances of children running up astronomical iTunes bills, the UK Office of Fair Trading has decided to look into the practice of in-app purchases.

The OFT is investigating whether app publishers are deliberately targeting children with hidden tariffs on free apps. The probe will look specifically at whether kids are “being unfairly pressured or encouraged to pay for additional content in 'free' web and app-based games, including upgraded membership or virtual currency such as coins, gems or fruit,” the consumer and competition authority said.

The agency has written to developers publishing such games to find out more about how they market their apps to children. It has also requested testimony from parents who come across examples of potentially misleading marketing. Specifically, the OFT is looking to determine whether the games in question include such 'direct exhortations' to children, thereby unfairly taking advantage of them and their parents’ linked credit cards.

“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, OFT senior director for goods and consumer.

“The OFT is not seeking to ban in-game purchases, but the games industry must ensure it is complying with the relevant regulations so that children are protected. We are speaking to the industry and will take enforcement action if necessary,” Cavendish added.