Google is to refund at least $19m as part of a settlement agreement with the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) over unfair and unauthorised charges through in-app purchases.
These in-app purchases (IAPs) have been associated with false or deceptive marketing, especially “free” games that eventually require purchasing add-ons to finish or even advance in the game.
The FTC began investigating IAPs after a series of complaints by US consumers who were hit with huge bills racked up by children or teens duped into making unauthorised IAPs.
The FTC claims that 84% of children’s apps that are free to download allow subsequent in-app purchases.
According to the FTC complaint, Google employees refer to the problem as “friendly” or “family” fraud, but the consumer body said Google made the charges without gaining proper consent.
“As more Americans embrace mobile technology, it’s vital to remind companies that time-tested consumer protections still apply, including that consumers should not be charged for purchases they did not authorise,” said FTC chairwoman Edith Ramirez.
In addition to the refund, Google has agreed to modify its billing practices to ensure that it obtains express, informed consent from consumers before charging them for items sold in mobile apps.
Google said in a statement: "We've already made product changes to ensure people have the best Google Play experience possible.
“We're glad to put this matter behind us so we can focus on creating more ways for people to enjoy all the entertainment they love."
Up to now, Google has generally provided refunds on request. But the FTC settlement requires Google to contact all consumers who received an in-app charge to inform them of the refund process.
In January, Apple agreed to refund at least $32.5m to customers following an FTC complaint.
In July, the FTC sued Amazon as part of its investigation into in-app purchases by children, but no settlement has been announced to date.