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In-app purchases in iPad, iPhone, iPod kids' games touch off parental firestorm

Check out these child-friendly apps for the iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch.

Both sets of parents disciplined their children and have since changed their passwords. And both families disputed the charges with Apple and received one-time reimbursements, they said.

And even though the episodes served as lessons about supervision on the gadgets, other parents point to loopholes. After a password is inserted, Apple allows a 15-minute window for purchases and downloads without having to reenter the password.

Brent Goldberg, a software engineer in Riverside, Calif., thought he took all the right precautions. He looked through the Dolphin Play game his two elementary-school-age sons asked to download and read through the description. It looked appropriate for his children and he knew they would be protected from doing much else on the game without a password.

He downloaded the game without knowing about the 15-minute password window.

In that time, his two boys spent $52 buying coins to play with dolphins on the game. The sons said they knew they were making purchases but they thought it was "computer money," Goldberg said.

"The problem is just how easy this can happen," he said, adding that Apple could make parental controls the default setting when downloading an app.

One parent in Denmark began a Facebook page called "Ban Credit Card Bait Apps on Apple Appstore" earlier this week. It has about four dozen members.

Recently, Smurfs' Village and Tap Zoo included disclaimers on the iTunes store saying that the games are free but that items purchased within the games cost real money. Pocket Gems and Capcom Interactive said they don't want users to accidentally rack up charges. Capcom recently included a pop-up warning at the start of the game to remind users of the real cost of some features.

"We find consumer complaints of children inadvertently purchasing in-app content lamentable," Capcom Interactive said in a statement. It said it does not try to take advantage of children, having been in the comics and gaming business for 25 years. But the iTunes practice of remembering passwords has created problems for Capcom game users, it said.

Of the more than 37,000 comments on both the Smurfs' Village sites, many parents warned users of high charges. Still, the games have become hits on Apple's gadgets, and investors see in-app purchases as a lucrative business model for start-ups.

Pocket Gems said earlier this month that it received $5 million in financing from Sequoia Capital and had its first month of "multimillion-dollar" sales. It has had 18 million downloads of its applications, including Tap Farm and Tap Jungle, the firm said.

Applications analytics firm Distino said in January that revenues from in-app purchases for popular iPad and iPhone applications doubled in the second half of 2010. Apple takes a 30 percent cut of in-app sales.

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