Smurf app fees leave parents steaming red

By Peter Svensson
Associated Press / December 10, 2010

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NEW YORK — The Smurfs’ Village, a game for the iPhone and other Apple gadgets, released a month ago, quickly became the highest-grossing application in the iTunes store. Yet it’s free to download.

So where does the money come from?

Kelly Rummelhart of Gridley, Calif., has part of the answer. Her 4-year-old son was using her iPad to play the game and racked up $66.88 in charges on her credit card.

Rummelhart had no idea that it was possible to buy things via the game. Her son bought one bushel and 11 buckets of Smurfberries, tokens that speed up game play.

She counts herself lucky that her son didn’t start tapping on another purchase button, like the “wheelbarrow’’ of Smurfberries for $59.99.

Numerous parents have fallen victim to such purchases. The 17 highest-rated comments on Smurfs’ Village in the App Store all complain about the high cost of the Smurfberries; two commenters call it a scam.

Apple introduced “in-app purchases’’ last year, letting developers use the iTunes billing system to sell items and add-ons in their games and applications.

Capcom Entertainment Inc., publisher of Smurfs’ Village, says inadvertent purchases by children are “lamentable.’’ It has added a warning to the game’s description in the App Store, and will include warnings inside the game, as well.

Usually, purchases require the owner of the device to enter his or her iTunes password. But there is no password challenge if the owner has entered the password in the last 15 minutes. That means that if a user enters the password for a purchase or a free app upgrade, then hands the phone or iPad to a child, the child will not be stopped by a password prompt.