More than $5000. That’s how much one man’s child ran up on his credit card by playing “free” games on his iPad. Many games may be advertised as free, but they actually try to push expensive “in-app purchases.”

Some children – particularly younger ones – may not realize that the “buy more stuff” option in a free game actually adds charges to the credit card you have saved on your tablet or smartphone.

What’s an In-App Purchase?

Operating systems with app stores like iOS, Android, and Windows Phone allow apps you’ve installed from the store to use in-app purchases. For example, you could theoretically install a video store app, search for a video in the app, and then rent it. The app could use an in-app purchase to charge your credit card for the video so you could quickly pay without leaving the app. This is the concept behind in-app purchases.

Many games are shifting away from paid models, where you pay a few dollars to buy the game, to “freemium” models, where the game is available for free but requires or encourages payments to continue playing the game. This could be in the form of paying a dollar for a few more levels, but it’s usually something much worse and more expensive. Many freemium games have extremely cynical business models and push players towards spending tens or even hundreds of dollars on in-game items that may not even last very long, making these “free” games more expensive than many paid games.

Some freemium games use in-app purchases in responsible ways, but some – particularly ones targeted at children – use very unethical business models. Tap Fish, a mobile game that was once exposed by The Daily Show, is a virtual aquarium where fish die if you don’t feed them. But don’t worry – if your beloved virtual fish do die, you can resurrect them at the cost of real money. It’s not hard to see why games with in-app purchases designed for children can be extremely unethical.

iPhone & iPad

Apple’s iOS allows you to enable Restrictions for in-app purchases. You can create a passcode that you’ll need whenever someone tries to perform an in-app purchase.

  • Open the Settings app and tap the General category.
  • Tap Restrictions on the General screen.
  • Enable Restrictions and create a password. Choose one that only you, and not your kids, will know.
  • Scroll down to Allowed Content, and set In-App Purchases to Off. Your device will ask for your password every time an in-app purchase is attempted.
  • Set Require Password to Immediately. This ensures that you’ll be asked to confirm each in-app purchase. The default 15 minute setting allows in-app purchases to be performed without a password in the 15 minute period after you enter your password.

ios restrict in app purchases



Google’s Play Store allows you to create a PIN, which you’ll need to enter each time you purchase an app from the store or use in-app purchases.

  • Open the Google Play store app.
  • Tap the menu button and select Settings.
  • Under User Controls, tap Set or change PIN and create a PIN. Choose one that your kids won’t know or be able to guess.
  • Check the Use PIN for purchases option.

Kindle Fire

The Amazon Appstore on the Kindle Fire allows you to restrict in-app purchases and even disable them entirely.

  • Open the Store app, press the menu button, and tap Settings.
  • Tap Parental Controls.
  • Tap the Enable Parental Controls checkbox. You’ll now need to enter your password every time you make a purchase. You can also tap Use PIN to create a PIN for purchases.

You could also tap In-App Purchasing on the settings screen and disable In-App Purchases entirely. However, they could also be re-enabled from here if you don’t enable parental controls.

Restricting in-app purchases is important if you have young children using your device. It sure beats having to explain your story to the local newspaper in the hopes that you can pressure Apple into reversing thousands of dollars in credit card charges.

Image Credit: 401(K) 2013 on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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