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in app purchaseI can’t believe it!” my cousin said to me the other day, “someone’s just bought a $10 in-app purchase on my mother’s phone, and she doesn’t even know what I’m talking about!“. Sounds familiar? How about your 2-year-old niece knowledgably tapping away on Talking Tom and buying herself a brand new action for $1.99? In-app purchases are fast becoming a very popular model, and the more common they become, the bigger the problem they impose. Especially considering the way today’s mobile app stores work.

In order to buy apps, and in Apple’s case, even download free apps, you must enter a valid credit card number. This number is stored in your account, and can be seamlessly used again and again to purchase apps and app add-ons. While you might need to know the account’s password as well, many times that doesn’t present much of a problem, considering it’s you or your kids/nieces/nephews/partner/friends/etc. who are making the purchase. So what exactly are in-app purchases? What should you know about them? And how can you protect yourself from wasting money?

What Are In-App Purchases?

While I’m sure most of you know what I’m talking about, I’ll give a brief explanation. In-app purchases are any additional levels, actions, items, and subscriptions you can buy from within a mobile app. An app can be completely free, but require an in-app purchase to work fully. An app can also be completely free, but entice you with in-app purchases to get more gold coins, super powers, levels, or any other content you might want.

in app purchase

Don’t get me wrong, in-app purchases can be great; when done right, they can give you the option to choose the exact content you want to pay for, and get it only after trying out the app and making sure this is really what you want. On the other hand, in-app purchases can be easily made by mistake, but someone else using your phone, or even by you in a moment of weakness which you later come to regret.

Are All In-App Purchases Alike?

The short answer to that is no. There are actually several kinds of in-app purchases, and it’s important to understand exactly which one of these you’re getting yourself (or already got yourself) into.

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One-Time Purchases

Non-replenishable on iOS /  Managed per user account on Android

These are purchases of content you only have to make once, and can include game levels, maps, new features, etc. When you make a purchase like this, you don’t have to make it again even if you delete the app. If you try to make it again, it should download for free.

Perishable Purchases

Replenishable on iOS / Unmanaged on Android

These are purchases you’re likely going to have to make again and again. Good examples are extra coins, ammo, health, etc. for games, and other services that can be wasted or expired. These are items you can use up, and when they’re gone, they’re gone. Also, if you delete the app, they’re not restored, and you need to download them again. These are especially dangerous, as they can be made again and again, with no limits.

in app purchase tips

Subscriptions

These are purchases that are billed on a monthly or weekly basis. They can either be automatically renewed or not. These can include newspaper on magazine subscriptions, location services subscriptions, and even gaming subscriptions.

How Do I Restrict In-App Purchases?

If you’ve experienced some heartache over these purchases, or want to avoid problem in the future, you can make sure no one, including you, can easily make these in-app purchases from your device.

On iOS:

Go to Settings –> General –> Restrictions, and tap on “Enable Restrictions”. If you’re doing this for the first time, you’ll have to enter a create a new PIN code by entering it twice. From here on, when you access your Restrictions again, you’ll have to tap in this code, so make sure you remember it.

Next, scroll down and find “In App Purchases” and slide the switch to OFF. That’s it, you’ve disabled in-app purchases on your device.

in app purchase tips

On Android:

Open the Google Play Store app, open the menu and choose “Settings”. Scroll down to User controls, and choose “Set or change PIN”. Enter a PIN you’re going to remember, and then mark the checkbox next to “Use PIN for purchases”. This is not a complete disable as in iOS, but it adds another layer of security. Now you just need to make sure no one but you knows this PIN code!

in-app-android-disable

Someone’s Already Made An In-App Subscription On My Device! How Do I Cancel?

First of all, don’t panic. In-app subscriptions can be easily cancelled, so if you’ve caught it on time and haven’t made multiple payments yet, you can escape relatively unharmed.

On iOS:

Open the App Store app on your device, and tap on “Featured” at the bottom of the screen. Tap the Apple ID button – you will need to enter your password or log in if you’re not logged in already – and tap the “View Apple ID” button. Scroll down and find the “Manage App Subscriptions” button, which will open your subscription manager. From here, you can select the culprit subscription and switch the Auto-Renewal option to OFF.

in app purchase

Note that if you don’t have any subscriptions, this button will not show.

On Android:

Open the Google Play Store app, open the menu and choose “My Apps”. Find your Subscriptions, and tap the app you want to cancel the subscription for. Click on the details page for the app, and then click “Cancel”. If for some reason you can’t see this option, you’ll have to contact the developer to cancel your subscription.

Conclusion

In-app purchases can be great, but as with anything, you need to stay informed and protect yourself from unnecessary waste of money. If you have kids or random people playing with your device, restricting in-app purchases is probably the best option of all. You can always remove the restriction when you really want to buy those extra Angry Birds levels.

Do you have an interesting/amusing/tragic in-app purchase stories? Know of other ways to deal with them? Share in the comments!

Image credit: Shopping cart image via Shutterstock

  1. Ayo Iseyemi
    February 14, 2016 at 7:13 am

    I was recently charged for a Google Play in app purchase on my Android, I didn't get the service and they did not ask for my debit card pin but the charge was made. I would like to know how on earth that was possible without my PIN, I put in my other card details tho except my PIN. I am seriously worried about my bank account safety!

  2. Ayo Iseyemi
    February 14, 2016 at 7:12 am

    I was recently charged for a Google Play in app purchase, I didn't get the service and they did not ask for my debit card pin but the charge was made. I would like to know how on earth that was possible without my PIN, I put in my other card details tho except my PIN. I am seriously worried about my bank account safety!

  3. ayo
    February 14, 2016 at 7:08 am

    I was charged for a Google Play in app purchase service on my android I didn't even get. The amazing thing is how they asked for all my debit card details except my pin and the charge was stil made, how on earth where they able to get money from my account without my card pin? That's what I want to know. Please if someone can clarify me on this, I'll be glad. I'm seriously worried about the safety of my bank account.

  4. PlaGeRaN
    February 17, 2015 at 6:26 am

    my easiest solution was not entering any data for credit / debit cards. if they want to pay, they can use their own card lol!

  5. Theresa Reardon
    January 1, 2013 at 12:35 am

    I've had that happen but, after being charged 14.95 twice, I was able to get my money back. Now I go a lot slower when I install apps on my phone.

  6. dragonmouth
    December 19, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    As the saying goes "A fool and his money are soon parted" The In-App Purchases were invented just to separate users from their money. Convenience has its price.

  7. Jorge Andrade
    December 19, 2012 at 12:45 am

    Very useful article, specially with kids playing games on your phone

  8. Mac Witty
    December 18, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    Great Yaara - shared om all places I have
    I think we all have read the sad stories of children's games but I have also heard from people saying that they are stupid as they started to buy in a game and the bill became to high. No, they are not blaming any other but they suffer a bit because of their own stupidness

    • Lisa Santika Onggrid
      December 19, 2012 at 8:07 am

      I think in-app store in children apps should be upfront and require confirmation before the deal is processed, because children often click on anything that looks interesting. Placing the in-app store in shady or ambiguous words can be considered cheating children to click on them.

  9. Gerald Huber
    December 18, 2012 at 6:59 pm

    google should probably require the pin to toggle the "require pin" check box. but maybe my nephew isn't that tech savvy yet. Or maybe he is. hmmmm

    • Yaara Lancet
      December 20, 2012 at 10:59 am

      Well, after you set up the PIN once, you need to enter it again to change these settings, so your nephew won't be able to change or disable the PIN without knowing the PIN. :)

  10. Stathis Magerakis
    December 18, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    Thanks for sharing! Great article!

  11. Anonymous
    December 18, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    Amazing article. I've always been wary about apps that have in-app purchases but now I can be sure on restricting them. Thanks a ton!

  12. Ashwin Ramesh
    December 18, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    Thanks for sharing this Yaara. These in-app purchases do trouble a lot while gaming!

  13. Brian Blank
    December 18, 2012 at 4:48 am

    I found that disabling in-app purchases will cause certain apps to no longer work.

    • Lisa Santika Onggrid
      December 19, 2012 at 8:03 am

      Could you give the examples?

      • Anonymous
        December 19, 2012 at 2:58 pm

        Pandora stopped working for me.

    • Yaara Lancet
      December 20, 2012 at 10:59 am

      Yes, I assume there will be some apps that either require in-app purchases, or will stop working for other obscure reasons.

      You can always switch in-app purchases on and off according to your needs.

      • Brian Blank
        December 20, 2012 at 1:57 pm

        That's a real pain considering how often I use the likes of Pandora. My solution is to use LastPass for a complex password and set a short cache time for the password.

        • Yaara Lancet
          December 20, 2012 at 5:02 pm

          Good solution!

  14. Rajeev Rohatgi
    December 18, 2012 at 3:46 am

    Very useful article -- I had no idea about this potentially dangerous problem! PIN'ned my Play Store account immediately.

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