UK consumer watchdog to investigate “free” mobile apps

British consumer watchdog the Office of Fair Trading has announced a major investigation into the targeting of children for in-app purchases in ‘free’ mobile apps and social media games.

The OFT statement notes that “free” apps account for 80 out of the 100 highest grossing apps in the Google Play marketplace for Android.

“The OFT investigation is exploring whether these games are misleading, commercially aggressive or otherwise unfair,” the regulator states.

“In particular, the OFT is looking into whether these games include ‘direct exhortations’ to children – a strong encouragement to make a purchase, or to do something that will necessitate making a purchase, or to persuade their parents or other adults to make a purchase for them. This is unlawful under the Consumer Protection (from Unfair Trading) Regulations 2008.”

As part of the investigation, the OFT is investigating whether the full cost of playing a game, including in-app purchases, is stated before users download an app.

“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,” says OFT senior director for goods and consumer, Cavendish Elithorn.

“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.”

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