The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has announced that it will collaborate with more than 50 equivalent international bodies in order to target so-called "freemium" children's apps that require in-app purchases to fully unlock an app.
Announced on Tuesday, the global investigation aims to work alongside app stores, such as the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store, to improve consumer protection and education on apps that are marked as being free initially, but which fail to divulge the in-app purchases that are requisite to use the app in its entirety.
"Consumers need to be aware that 'free' may not mean free. Games and apps in the 'free' area of an online store may be free to download, but attract costs for in-app purchases," ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard said today.
The International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN) sweep will particularly focus on apps that appeal to children.
"Some of these apps are marketed for children, who do not connect the game they are playing with spending their parents' money in the real world," Rickard added.
"A child can unwittingly make one in-app purchase costing $100 or 100 in-app purchases costing $1 each."
While a password is usually required to download an app, after entering it there is sometimes a 15- to 30-minute window where no password is required for further purchases. iOS users can disable in-app purchases altogether, but Android users' app-buying restrictions involve leaving the 30-minute window open after each purchase, according to the ACCC.
In July this year, Australia's Commonwealth Consumer Affairs Advisory Council (CCAAC) recommended that app developers and stores make it more straightforward for customers to attain refunds for accidental purchases, particularly with regards to circumstances involving children.
While then-Assistant Treasurer David Bradbury asked the CCAAC to examine whether Australian consumer protection laws are sufficient to deal with these issues, the council recommended against government regulation (PDF), finding that the review systems currently in place within app stores are adequate to resolve such customer disputes.
The ACCC recommends directing complaints involving accidental in-app purchases to its website, or, if the purchases appear on your phone bill, to take the matter to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman.
The ICPEN's 50 members include consumer protection bodies from the UK, the US, Germany, China, Canada, France, and New Zealand. Its international website provides information on worldwide consumer protection and a service for cross-border complaints and dispute resolution.