At War With The Gamers Who Use Microtransaction And In-App Purchase Fraud

Games with in-app purchases have been around for some time now, and they were controversial from the beginning with parents letting their kids play on their phone or tablet, not realising that the additional features, skins, tools, weapons and other items which were necessary to advance to the next level or make the game worth playing were actually charging a real-world fee.

Children racked up thousands of pounds in credit card bills in some cases, and after a slew of cases the game creators and publishers were forced to repay money that had been spent with them to several successful complaints. So while these in-app purchases haven’t gone away, they are more clearly signposted that they will charge real money from your account, and not use the imaginary money which you’ve collected as part of your gameplay.

While this problem was blamed on a flaw which was actually something of a feature as far as making money was concerned, we’re now finding that online fraudsters are making use of “microtransaction fraud” or in-app purchase fraud to target goods you’ve bought and money which has been put aside to make legitimate in-app purchases. While these goods don’t exist in the real world, they can be intrinsic to for your game, so taking them from you, or cash you keep online wallets which you plan to use to make purchases for enhanced gameplay is depriving you. And that’s a crime.

It may seem funny to a non-game player that someone should try to steal someone else’s in-app treats, but if you’re spending many hours a week gaming and paying for it legitimately, those in-app purchases are going to mount up. Mounting costs and lack of funds, just like in the real world, become an incentive to those who are so inclined to take to tricking, bulling, threatening and abusing those around them into handing over their property.

If you’re not familiar with online gaming you can play a game in a virtual environment with people from all over the world who happen to be online at the same time as you. It can be a brilliant way to join a team, work together remotely, and if you get good enough play professionally in games tournaments all over the world.

The problem is when you play against people who can ruin the game for you unless you send them things you’ve had to pay money for. For example, if you get shot in a war game your character dies, and after a few moments it comes back to life. Imagine the frustration if every time your character regenerates again they immediately get killed before being able to do a thing to prevent it. Like the school bully who pushes the smaller kid down every time they try to stand up, eventually they’re going to hand over their lunch money just to be left alone. The ‘bully’ in this instance might take things like in-game weapons, armour, medi-kits, powerups and other things the victim has either bought or won, or take cash from an online wallet which they can use to purchase what they want in the game, or convert back into usable credit via PayPal for example.

It’s simple to just say “well don’t play the game” or “don’t buy the extras then” but even the free games available online are rarely “free”. You can play a basic level on most games for free, but someone had to spend a fortune developing, designing and publishing these games, and in an exchange economy they do eventually need to fins a way to earn a profit from their investment.

Now nobody is saying that buying a “mountain of gems” for £69.99 in a free My Little Pony game designed for and targeted at girls aged 6 to 9 is fair. Clearly a child isn’t going to be naïve enough to believe that they’re really going to get a ‘mountain of gems’ from a game, so they click on purchase, thinking it’s pretend. However, if the parents card details are logged, BOOM! That’s £70 of your hard earned money gone on literally nothing.

That of course is just one purchase. A five year old boy playing Zombies Vs Ninjas in 2015 managed to rack up over £1,700 in just a few minutes because as a child in his first year of school he had no idea that the money he was spending on multiple purchases was real. Assuredly a game called “Zombies Vs Ninjas” was probably inappropriate for a five year old, so what about the 8 year old girl who was playing games specifically targeted at her age group. Playing Smurfs, Campus Life, My Horse and Hay Day on her dad’s tablet she managed to spend £4,000 on in app purchases. The money was returned, but there could have been serious consequences for the family if the repayment hadn’t been made, or not repaid promptly.

The Office of Fair Trading has clamped down on sharp practices among the app developers, so while the in-app purchases aren’t forced on players in the way they once were, they do still exist, and if they’re necessary for the best game-playing experience, there are going to be players who will exploit children and novices to the game to get goods for free.

So while we take great care to protect our wealth and property in the real realm, what with VPNs to protect our digital security, two factor authentication, to protect our email, and smart devices, and smart CCTV to protect our homes, we rely on the good judgment of our children and the honesty of online game developers to protect our cash from being spent on imaginary jewels and guns.

If you absolutely don’t want to pay for games ensure your card details are deleted from the device you’re using before you hand it to your kids to play with. If you think a game is good enough to pay for, pay for it and then use ‘Ask to Buy’ in order to ensure that it’s impossible to unknowingly tap an upgrade which comes at a cost. You can also set passwords on your account so that gaming apps aren’t able to bill you for anything without your consent

If your kids are old enough, give them a digital wallet or preloaded debit card which you can add to with pocket money which they can spend online each month. This isn’t a solution to microtransaction fraud, but it will stop anyone from being able to extort more than a couple of pounds from them before they tell you what’s going on.

Originally published at https://briantcomms.substack.com on September 7, 2021.