Facebook to give Refunds on In-App Purchases by Minors

A California court has ruled that Facebook must introduce a feature to refund purchases made by minors in apps and games, such as Farmville and Bejeweled.

Two parents brought the case against Facebook in February 2012 on behalf of their children, who had been buying virtual credit for use in games, and had racked up charges to their parents' account without permission. One parent was understandably shocked to find a bill of $1,059 from her child's gaming activities. Another was horrified when the $20 she paid for her son to unlock features on Ninja Emblem turned into several hundreds of dollars, charged  to her account as her son handed over what he thought was fake money.

Facebook tried to defend itself, saying users had received and used the goods they paid for, so it wouldn't make sense to offer refunds. The lead attorney for the families, John R. Parker, condemned this logic as 'a joke', since minors often don't understand that their gaming is costing their parents real money, especially when this is not made clear in the game.

Parker explains how the problem can escalate: 'They’ve got a credit card they put into their account and they don’t realise that every time they click on some button in the game to get some extra magic coin, the company is charging the parent’s account.'

A study conducted by the Pew Research Centre in 2014 found that as many as 73% of American teens (age 12-17 years old) are active Facebook users, with many even younger users lying about their age to qualify for an account - the  sign up page requires new users to be at least 13 years of age. With these numbers involved, this decision affects hundreds of thousands of people, who could legally claim their money back. Facebook has agreed to establish a team specifically for dealing with the refund requests.

Central to the discussion has been the State of California's Family Code, a piece of legislation which protects minors from corporate exploitation by allowing any contract to be voided by the minor at any time before they come of age. This is intended to prevent companies from taking advantage of vulnerable young people who do not understand the consequences of their clicks.

Facebook is not the only company that has faced legal action over in-app and in-game purchases by children. Apple, Google and Amazon have all been under the spotlight in recent years, with pressure on them to tighten the measures required to make an online purchase, and to make it harder for children to rack up massive bills on their parents' cards.

In January 2014, a settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission required that Apple pay out at least $32.5 million to refund parents whose children had bought apps through their iOS devices from March 2011. This followed public outrage at stories of small children inadvertently spending thousands of dollars, such as the 5-year-old girl who cost her parents $2500 on Zombies vs Ninjas, while another parent was charged $1400 for their daughter's Smurf Village iPad adventures.

Parents and opponents of in-game purchases argue that this level of spending shouldn't be possible for anyone, let alone accessible to a small child.

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