April 17, 2012 at 4:07 PM ET
Apple came under fire last year when parents found that their kids had been spending hundreds of dollars on smurfberries and virtual coins in "free" games, and a class-action lawsuit ensued.
Apple sought to have it dismissed. Another judge recently upheld most of the allegations, however, and it will go ahead as planned.
Perhaps better described as "freemium," the games and apps can be downloaded at no charge, but tend to push secondary purchases like extra levels and items for real-world money.
For example, the popular game "Draw Something" charges for additional colors with which to draw. And in a Smurfs game, clearly intended for children, the smurfberries used as currency in the game were available for purchase in batches costing up to $59 each. This allows kids to rack up large charges quickly, using credit card information already stored in the iTunes accounts of their parents.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit alleged that Apple promoted and advertised these apps as free, and had in place a policy that allowed kids to make purchases too easily.
The parents' iTunes password was necessary to make purchases, so the common-sense argument was that the parents should simply not allow their kids to know that password. But at the time the lawsuit was filed, purchases could be made for 15 minutes after the password was put in to buy the app. Apple has plugged that hole, but the lawsuit still takes them to task for, among other things, promoting apps as "free or costing a nominal fee with the intent to induce minors to purchase in-app game currency."
Just because the lawsuit is being allowed does not mean that it will succeed; however, that it was not dismissed at Apple's request does mean the company will have to mount a serious defense. It will also draw attention to the issue, which could grow into a PR issue as well as a legal one.
There are solutions to the problem, of course. It may be wisest to simply not install apps that rely on secondary purchases in the first place. But if you must, try creating a separate account for the kids with an "allowance" in the form of an iTunes gift card or the like.
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.