Microtransactions are how a lot of software companies are making a lot of bank on fallible customers. Jeremy Hillman, a communications director at World Bank, learned the hard way about microtransactions when his 13-year-old son purchased $4,500 worth of digital goods in EA's FIFA.
Over on a Medium post, Hillman lays out his troubles in a lengthy blog describing how he was charged on his credit card for the FIFA transactions without even knowing when or how it happened. It was only after he saw several charges for $109 on his credit card statement statement did he decide to investigate.
“I actually spent a couple of minutes glancing at my last credit card bill and noticed four consecutive charges over two days for $109 from Microsoft. I initially thought it must be a glitch in the renewal of my Office 365 subscription?—?I’m a happy Microsoft user and am writing this on Word right now. A quick check showed it couldn’t have been that. When I heard my son meekly call out for his mother from his bedroom after hearing me start to rant it there was clearly another explanation.”
According to Hillman, he called up a Microsoft service representative and discussed the situation with them. They were willing to deal with one of the $109 charges but he was then notified about the other $109 charges. They accumulated to a total of $4,500.
It's safe to say that there was a lot of fury in the Hillman household... mostly from papa Hillman.
Turns out that his son had been making the charges ever since they moved. He no longer had his old friends and he wasn't playing outside as much. His comfort? FIFA. He would buy the player packs, and he could do so since Jeremy Hillman attached his credit card to the Xbox Live account that his son played on. However, what Hillman didn't know was that after buying the digital copy of FIFA with his card, the card itself was left on the account, enabling the account holder (Jeremy Hillman's son) to make digital purchases without requiring any kind of authorization.
As noted by Hillman...
“With horror I started scrolling through pages of charges?—?$109, $109, $109?—?sometimes two a day. More than $4,500 of charges for virtual FIFA players going back several months. I shouted for my wife, my son was inconsolable.”
It was noted that Hillman's son tried purchasing some of the packs but it told him that it didn't go through, so he tried a few more times. This is actually an issue that has popped up in several titles from Electronic Arts, including both NHL 12 and NHL 13, where the puck packs would say that they didn't go through but customers were being charged anyway. EA was made aware of the bug but never made any public statements about addressing the problem.
According to Hillman...
“The answer to us is now clear?—?he became addicted to the game, spending $100 was as easy as clicking a button, there were no barriers, and it didn’t feel like real money even though it had a dollar sign on the screen. My wife and I accept our responsibility in this. We should have paid much closer attention to his video gaming, and my son accepts his responsibility and punishment. He has lost his X-box, he had been promised a table-tennis table but that is on hold, his savings have been forefeited.”
It's good Hillman accepts responsibility, but he goes on to reproach Microsoft for their lackadaisical security setup and payment structures that make it easy for kids to make digital purchases.
This isn't just a Microsoft problem, though, this is an industry problem.
In America there are no consumer safeguards in place to prevent corporations from abusing credit card purchases made at the hands of kids. It's extremely easy to attach a card to a digital account and allow the account user (sometimes children) to make microtransaction purchases without requiring any kind of authentication.
Over in Europe various trade bodies for consumer rights and advocacy have been cracking down on companies and publishers that setup their business to take advantage of kids making in-app purchases with their parent's credit card, which included EA's Dungeon Keeper (starting to see a pattern?).
Additional authentication and clearly visible wording and tabs are required in apps to prevent kids from abusing the microtransaction functions, in Europe. While it's definitely a parent's job to watch over and monitor what their kid does with any device, it's still the responsibility of the corporation to ensure that they're not taking advantage of children playing on their parent's devices by making in-app purchases look like a standard in-game purchase.
As Jeremy Hillman found out, there are real consequences for the lack of security measures and child-protection utilities put into place. Hillman hasn't taken any legal action against Microsoft, but it's also something he hasn't put out of his mind.