By Angela Reinhardt, Staff writer
I grew up in your garden-variety, middle-class American household in the 80s and 90s so I’m no stranger to video games.
My sister and I played Sega (we had a Sega Master System and later upgraded to the Genesis console). I enjoyed the futuristic game Fantasy Zone, which let me maneuver my space ship “Opa Opa” through each level to collect coins so I could spend them in the weapons store.
Even though I rarely play video games now, I let my children have tablets and gaming consoles - but after my 8-year-old son spent over $200 in real money (mine and my husband’s money) for virtual goods just like the ones I collected in Fantasy Zone, we may follow the lead of the neo-Luddites and ban games made after the turn of the century.
I consider myself to be fairly competent when it comes to electronics, but I’m not a gadget person – and apparently companies like Apple, X Box and Amazon prey on people like me.
In what I now call the “Kindle incident,” I caved and bought my son $1.99 worth of virtual coins for a free game we downloaded from the app store. The purchase required a password and (like any rational person would have) I assumed each subsequent purchase would require another password entry.
Wrong. The next day I discovered 15 separate charges on my online bank account for thousands of virtual coins. Total charged? $150.00. Total time taken to charge? Five minutes.
Apparently Amazon has a “convenient” password lapse that allowed my son to make rapid-fire purchases without my permission.
When I called Amazon I was shocked at how easy it was to have the purchases reversed –a little too easy, I thought. It was obvious they did this all the time.
“Does this happen a lot?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” the lady said. “Just be glad it wasn’t worse. We’ve had them get up in the thousands.”
In a surprising display of candidness she told me that while Amazon “strongly encourages parents to use ‘Kindle Free Time’ to control kids’ usage,” they rarely refuse to reverse unwanted charges. In fact, she had personally never made a refusal.
After the “Kindle Incident” my husband and I were more diligent about guarding tablet usage, but in a one-two sucker punch we were clothes-lined again last week when my son got an X Box from his grandparents as an early birthday present.
My in-laws bought Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare to go with the system without realizing it requires a subscription to X Box Live Gold - and I caved again. I agreed to try the service for three months ($24.99) because Auri was so excited about the game. I had to create an account and enter my credit information (I later found out you can buy pre-paid cards for X Box Live and keep your information safe).
After struggling through many frustrating hours of figuring how to download upgrades that wouldn’t fit on the hard drive (I had to delete demo games to get them to work), Auri could finally play.
Then like getting struck by lightening twice, I checked my email the next morning and found cheerful confirmation letters informing me I had successfully purchased; a Fruit Ninja ($9.99); a Wedge Helmet (.99 cents); a Wedge Uniform ($1.99); Hydro-Thunder (whatever it is, cost $14.99); and $17 worth of coins.
I thought about the phrase “Fool me once shame on you; fool me twice shame on me,” but I quickly realized I shouldn’t feel ashamed at all. My in-laws paid 30 bucks for that game. Why should I think it would cost more to play it?
And it looks like I’m not alone with my frustration because just a few weeks ago the Federal Trade Commission sued Amazon for unauthorized charges made by kids, while earlier this year Apple agreed to settle a similar FTC complaint at the tune of $32 million.
Are the suits fair? You better believe it – and I doubt if Apple (and Amazon when they lose) will be paying that balance off in virtual coins.