For many families, the coronavirus crisis means more time at home, and with it, kids using electronic devices more. Screen time has soared during the pandemic – to more than six hours a day, according to a ParentsTogether survey – which could result in surprise credit card charges from apps, online games and streaming services.
If your child has surprised you with a credit card purchase, it might be tough to get a refund from the merchant or the credit card company, but there are some options. Here is a look at what parents can do and how they can prevent such charges from occurring again.
How Do Unexpected Credit Card Charges Happen?
When you provide your credit card to sign up with a cable company, streaming service, gaming system or even an online game, you’re often not only paying for a subscription or one-time charge. You’re also leaving that card open for future purchases, like you would when you open a bar tab.
Charges for a game app on your smartphone might be funneled through your phone’s platform, such as Apple or Google, or gaming system. If you make a purchase through your phone platform or streaming service, you would see a charge titled by the company – such as “Apple” or “Netflix” – on your card statement.
These purchases could range from an on-demand movie through a streaming service to a prize in an online game that your child might not even realize would cost actual money.
“There can be some confusion, especially with children, where the line is – what is real money and what is virtual currency,” says Brittany Frassetto, an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.
In-game purchases, also known as microtransactions, are found on popular video games such as Fortnite or Counter-Strike and can be one of the toughest purchases to track down and stop. They can include outfits on an avatar, in-game currency and mystery rewards found in “loot boxes” or “loot chests.”
In-app purchases have been a concern for the FTC, a federal agency that has consumer protection as one of its main missions. It brought cases against Apple, Amazon and Google several years ago, securing agreements to provide refunds for millions of dollars in charges incurred by children without parental consent on kids’ mobile apps.
What Can You Do If You Have an Unexpected Charge?
Here are some steps to take if an unexpected streaming service or gaming system charge shows up on your credit card statement.
To start, do some detective work.
“You have to have a discussion with the kids: Where did this charge come from?” says Leslie Tayne, founder and head attorney at Tayne Law Group in New York.
If the charge was recent, it will be easier to figure out who made it and what was bought. Some companies will help – for example, you can look up Apple-related charges online.
If the charge is truly unauthorized – in other words, no one from your family made a purchase from that business – then you should report the fraud to your credit card company, which likely offers full protection from fraudulent charges. But the charges from your child – even though they’re unexpected – might not be not considered fraudulent, so you’ll likely need to take a different approach if you want to get your money back.
Once you’ve figured out what was charged and when, and you’ve decided you would like to get a refund, you ought to approach the business, not the credit card company.
“When you’re dealing with a credit card company and dispute something, they generally want to know if you’ve reached out to the merchant,” Tayne says.
Timing is important, as “the sooner you dispute something, the more legitimate the dispute is,” she says.
The business will likely want to avoid a refund, also known as a chargeback, so you’ll need to make your case in a calm, logical way and provide as much information as possible.
“It’s going to depend on what the issue is,” Tayne says. “If the kid is using a game that is deceptive in a way – it looks cartoon-like and makes it super easy for them to purchase something – there is an element of deceit there. If you’re a parent and see that, you can argue with the company about it.”
Also, your child could have signed up for a subscription-based app that had a free trial but ended up charging money – a situation where you “think you’re signing up for one thing and it’s completely something else,” Frassetto says.
Discuss with the credit card issuer
Be aware, however, that companies have clearly articulated policies related to refunds. For example, American Express suggests that consumers first talk to the business that made the charge. If the issue advances to the credit card company, American Express will follow its usual handling and chargeback procedures, which considers the merchant’s terms and conditions at the time of the transaction.
It’s important to remember that businesses are credit card companies’ customers, too, which means issuers are a neutral third party and won’t automatically take a consumer’s side in a dispute, Tayne says. You’ll want to make your case with specifics about the charge, when and how it happened, your discussion with the merchant and any other details you have.
“You want to give them enough information so the determination is in your favor,” Tayne says.
One way to make your case is to say the charge was a mistake by your child and ask that it be refunded.
Your relationship with the credit card company could be a deciding factor. For example, have you had the card for many years? Do you use it frequently and pay on time? Have you not made many – if any – requests for refunds? All of those elements could work in your favor during a dispute.
“When you are disputing things with a credit card company, you want to be credible,” Tayne says. If you continually ask for refunds or the same refund, a credit card company may no longer help you with it.
For example, if you want to stop recurring payments from happening, “definitely let the credit card company know and let the merchant know you have revoked any authorization for future charges,” Tayne says. “Otherwise, month after month you’re going to end up with charges.”
To file a complaint about a charge, make sure you’ve submitted a written notice to the issuer within 60 days of the first bill that contained the error, according to the Federal Trade Commission. There are several other provisions to review about disputed charges in the Fair Credit Billing Act.
Also, be sure to pay your credit card bill during the dispute process, as you could incur interest charges. If you win your dispute, you would likely get a refund, but the interest might not be covered.
How Can Parents Prevent Unexpected Credit Card Charges?
Many accidental credit card charges from children can be prevented if parents set up the right parental controls on game systems, smartphone platforms and apps.
“You can’t keep blaming the kid,” Tayne says. “At some point you have to step up and get control of it. It’s not so easy, because all these apps require credit cards.”
Here are some steps to get a handle on all possible charge outlets:
If you don’t have a list of all the accounts connected with your credit card, it’s time to make one. You might be surprised.
Review the accounts to make sure your kids are using them, and cut off payments to the ones that aren’t active.
Many companies have ways for parents to sign off on game-related purchases and other entertainment:
- Apple: You can set up limits through Family Sharing, where parents can approve downloads and purchases.
- Google: A parent can approve all purchases and get an email receipt for each one through Google Play. Children younger than 13 can only make payments using the family payment method.
- Microsoft: A parental control offering for the Xbox allows for preapproval purchases and purchase history.
- Nintendo: Parental controls are available for Nintendo Switch and other devices.
- Sony: Account holders can set PlayStation family spending limits per month and alerts about purchases.
- Apps: Before you download an app, you can consult ratings from the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which will let you know if a game includes in-app purchases. You’ll also want to review the app itself to see what types of spending controls it has.
Review statements frequently
Make sure to open and review all credit card statements right away to see if there are questionable charges. Better yet, check at least once a week online to see what charges are connected to your account.
If you believe your children have been deceived by a game that tricked them into making an unintended purchase, file a complaint to help save others from the same fate.
“The controls are really helpful, but if something gets through, we want to hear about it,” Frassetto says. “There are so many apps, and they’re popping up all the time. Consumers are really our first line of defense.”