Free Game Apps: Expensive Rip-offs on the Internet

Game apps for smartphones and tablets are very popular with children and teenagers. They are mainly offered for “free” on the Internet and promise excitement and fun. Of 50 popular smartphone games considered, just one was harmless. Hidden costs and a lack of data protection are the biggest problems and points of criticism.

So-called “free” apps are indeed free to download, but they then encourage in-app purchases, which children make without hesitation and in great numbers. The providers of game apps for children thus generate sales of almost 410 million euros per year. Only 17 million euros come from the sale of apps, the rest comes from in-app purchases. The money is mainly spent on resources or boosts.

Many apps tempt children to spend money, whether subtly or clumsily. The ads say “Free to Play”; however, many apps are designed so that, at first, players see a lot of progress and success very quickly, but then cannot move forward as quickly without extra money or virtual resources. To avoid frustration, the player can buy resources in the app or game store, and thus progress faster in the game. The costs and benefits are usually not transparent. The prices can range from 99 cents to 99.99 euros. In extreme cases, it is possible to spend up to 350 euros.

Only suitable password protection can prevent children from making spontaneous purchases

Due to the variety of payment methods offered in the games, such as eWallets, it is easy for children to make such purchases. Once children and young people have access to their parents’ payment data or even their own account, it is very quick to transfer money to the game app provider. The payment data is stored so that follow-on purchases are easy to execute. “Free” games like Casino-Online can only be played successfully by buying add-ons. Children are more impulsive than adults and lose perspective more easily. They can quickly spend all their pocket money or savings. If players pay with their parents’ money, then holes in the household budget are a foregone conclusion.

Password protection for in-app purchases reduces the risk. The consumer organisation Stiftung Warentest also recommends that parents access the portal, which provides a list of safe children’s apps.

Parents should be the ones to install and register the own games, which is legally required anyway for children under 13 years of age. It is also useful if parents play alongside their children, so they can then always check on the activities of their offspring.

Poor data protection

Only 1 of the 50 apps tested by Stiftung Warentest provides appropriate protection for children and young people. This is according to Stiftung Warentest and, the joint centre of the federal and regional German governments for the protection of minors on the Internet. Hidden costs and lack of data protection are the main problems and points of criticism.

In 19 apps, children are not adequately protected from contact by anonymous online players or from contacts with strangers. Built-in chat features allow for anonymous bullying or unwanted messages from adults. In the chats, unpleasant and even criminal peers are also sometimes active.

In another 19 apps, advertising is mixed with the game without being clearly identified as such. In many games, Stiftung Warentest considers the terms of business and data protection to be questionable and, in the case of four apps, to be unacceptable.

Two of the tested programs send the users’ personal data without encryption. Most collect far more data than is necessary for the game operation. The information gathered includes the mobile phone provider, device numbers, location data, and the age of the players. Data collectors can thus get a pretty accurate picture of the players. One tested app had 87 contacts with 13 Internet servers right at the start.

Of the tested apps, 27 out of 50 made it possible to identify the player easily because the data was also sent to advertising networks. Stiftung Warentest describes this as “critical data transmission behaviour”. In the test, 24 apps reward the players for logging in with Facebook credentials or a Google Account. As Facebook excludes users under the age of 13, this can tempt children to sign up with the wrong age indication. If the child accesses Facebook, additional data can be collected.

The German Federal Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection has published a guide for app developers and vendors. The authors recommend that the App Store includes a short summary in terms of the most important consumer and data protection issues, such as costs, advertising, and support. They also advocate the free provision of test versions and security updates “for a reasonable period of time”. Children should be offered fully paid apps without advertising. Consumers will have to wait and see whether the companies (especially foreign ones) follow this recommendation.

Further information for parents can be found in the July issue of “test” magazine, at, or at




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