Tuck a youngster quietly into the backseat of a car with a cellphone and a game app and you might end up footing a bill for thousands of dollars worth of "virtual" berries or gems.

It's a story that has been making headlines over and over again around the world: parents surprised to discover a hefty iTunes or app-store bill that their child racked up with costly in-game extras on what was a free-to-download game.

In some countries, the cases have sparked consumer investigations and civil suits over the so-called "bait apps," a profitable business model that's becoming increasingly widespread.

Here in Canada, a Newfoundland mother became the latest unwitting victim.

Paula Marner told CBC News she was aghast when she saw her $3,000 iTunes bill after her two boys spent the family's U.K. vacation playing Clash of Clans.

Each purchase — from 99 cents to $99 — required the iTunes account password. The twin seven-year-olds knew the password from watching her put it in, said Marner. But she had no idea the innocuous-looking free game could cost her such an extra whack of cash.

Sidneyeve Matrix, an associate professor in marketing and digital media at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., says parents often know generally about these kinds of games.

"It's just that they may not have the mobile digital literacy to know how to turn off some of those settings in Apple or on the phone or tablet itself," she said.

Teach yourself

That's a gap parents need to address, warns Ken Whitehurst, executive director of the Consumers Council of Canada.

"They should do whatever they can to educate themselves before they make a decision to let the child use the device." 

And if they find that the device or the app seems too complicated, they should complain to the manufacturers and ask for clearer instructions, he says.

"That's the first thing they should do. They shouldn't just say well because it's a challenge, or because it's difficult I don't need to do this," he said. "You do need to do this."

While these free mobile apps that involve in-app or in-game purchases have been the subject of controversy in many places,  little has been done so far in the way of regulation.

After a series of news stories about parents saddled with pricey in-app purchasing bills, Australia's consumer watchdog was asked by the government to probe the issue.

This July, however, Australia's Commonwealth Consumer Affairs Advisory Council decided against more regulation. Instead, it suggested that Apple's App Store and Google Play make it easier for customers to get refunds within a certain window of time after the purchase.

In this current case, Apple reimbursed the Newfoundland mother with the $3,000 bill, and news reports suggest it has done that in a number of other instances as well.

Games 'unfairly' pressuring kids?

Apple also recently settled a class-action lawsuit in the U.S. over the "unlawful exploitation" of children through in-app purchases.

The settlement allows parents of children who downloaded content without parental permission during the time period covered by the suit to be reimbursed with an iTunes gift card or cash.

But the company was quite forceful in declaring that the settlement was not an admission of guilt. It denied all allegations and said the settlement was done only to avoid "costly litigation."

A month after the U.S. lawsuit was launched in April of 2011, the company made an important change to its app games by requiring that users input their account password every time they buy an in-game extra.

Meanwhile, Britain's Office of Fair Trading is currently investigating whether such mobile and web games for children are "unfairly" pressuring or encouraging them to buy expensive in-game extras.

It will delve into whether the games are misleading and in particular whether the games include strong encouragements to children to make a purchase, which is unlawful under its consumer protection rules. The report's findings are due in October.

Whitehurst says his organization isn't aware of any current litigation or investigations into in-app purchasing in Canada, but it is an issue that numerous agencies, including provincial consumers affairs ministries and the federal competition bureau, could look into, depending on the case.

The Competition Bureau, an independent national law enforcement agency, said it can look into misleading representations involving mobile apps but a spokesperson wouldn't reveal anything beyond that.

"The Competition Bureau is obliged to conduct its work confidentially," spokesperson Greg Scott said in an email. "As such, I am unable to confirm whether or not we have received any complaints related to mobile apps aimed at children that involve in-app purchasing. For the same reason, I cannot confirm whether or not the Bureau has any investigations in this area."

Treat phone like bank card

Mobile app retailers such as iTunes and Google Play have changed their practices over the years, but Whitehurst notes that each operating system deals with the issue in a different way.

Generally, on cellphones and tablets, users can disable in-app purchasing in their settings options. (See below for instructions.) Parents can also set up passwords for the devices to prevent children from accessing them altogether.

However, experts say there is also room for retailers and app developers to educate consumers better about how to navigate the sometimes convoluted settings on their devices — and how to prevent such inadvertent purchases.

"It would be awesome if telecoms — mobile providers — and device manufacturers and app developers would help us all move the needle on our own mobile literacy by providing really transparent terms of service agreements, and providing lots of really simple, helpful, clear ideas about how we can use our phones responsibly," says Matrix.

Consumer advocate Whitehurst agrees, but also notes, "there's no one [guilty] party in the whole process … I think it's all of their responsibility."

"Usually some private piece of information has to be given," said Whitehurst. "And that information in our experience … could allow someone to make a variety of purchases on a device, so, really, don't give your kids your passwords."

He advises that consumers should think about their devices in a different light.

"A device capable of making purchases is like a bank card," said Whitehurst. "These are powerful devices and people really should focus on understanding the risk that goes with using them.

 

How to protect yourself: A step-by-step guide for iPhones and Google Play

Click through the slides above to see how users of Apple (left) and Android devices can secure themselves from in-app purchases.