When Jessica Johnson noticed thousands disappearing from her bank account last summer, she thought she was the victim of fraud. She never suspected that her own kid was spending the money on a mobile game – or that the bill would amount to over $16K. Now this Connecticut mom has learned the hard way how tough it can be to control a kid’s spending in mobile games.
How It Happened
Like so many parents across the country, Johnson has been working from home thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 41-year-old real estate broker shares space with her husband and two sons, including six-year-old George, who kept busy over the summer playing games on his mom’s iPad.
During that time, Johnsons started noticing large withdrawals from her Chase bank account, some totaling hundreds of dollars, to Apple and PayPal.
By the end of July, the mysterious charges reached a grand total of $16,293.10, prompting Johnson to file a fraud claim with the bank. It took another three months for the bank to inform her that the charges were legitimate, advising her to call Apple.
Apple’s customer service directed Johnson toward a “buried list of all the running charges,” she told the New York Post. “You wouldn’t know how to [find] it without someone directing you,” she said.
At last, Johnson discovered the source of the mysterious withdrawals: scores of in-app transactions made within the app Sonic Forces, a mobile game featuring Sonic the Hedgehog. Johnson’s son George had apparently spent the money on “ring” power-ups ranging from $2 to $100.
“It’s like my 6-year-old was doing lines of cocaine — and doing bigger and bigger hits,” Johnson said.
Apple’s “Tough” Response
The mother implored Apple to dismiss the charges, but a customer service representative simply told her that there were settings to prevent such issues — which Johnson had no knowledge of.
“Obviously if I had known there was a setting for that, I wouldn’t have allowed my 6-year-old to run up nearly $20,000 in charges for virtual gold rings,” Johnson said.
Still, Apple refused to budge on the hefty in-game charges.
“[Apple] said, ‘Tough,'” Johnson said. “They told me that, because I didn’t call within 60 days of the charges, that they can’t do anything. The reason I didn’t call within 60 days is because Chase told me it was likely fraud — that PayPal and Apple.com are top fraud charges.”
The astonishing debt comes at an especially inopportune time for Johnson, whose finances have been badly hit by the pandemic. She told the New York Post that the family wouldn’t be able to pay their mortgage.
“I didn’t get a paycheck from March to September,” she said. “My income has decreased by 80 percent this year. I may have to force this kid to pay me back in 15 years when he gets his first job.”
Johnson feels that Apple and the developers of Sonic Forces intentionally prey on the naivety of children in pursuit of profits.
“These games are designed to be completely predatory and get kids to buy things,” she said. “What grown-up would spend $100 on a chest of virtual gold coins? […] My son didn’t understand that the money was real. How could he? He’s playing a cartoon game in a world that he knows is not real. Why would the money be real to him? That would require a big cognitive leap.”
So far, neither Apple nor Chase bank have commented on the matter.
As for Johnson and her son, this painful lesson on in-game transactions has cast a shadow over the coming holiday season.
“[George] said, ‘Well, I’ll pay you back, Mom,” Johnson said. “How? I pay him $4 to clean his room! I literally told George, ‘I don’t know about Christmas.'”