Over the last year, a number of cases have been reported where children have unwittingly racked up huge bills while playing web and app-based games that are free to download. The bills came from expensive “in-app purchases” of content such as upgraded membership and virtual currency, which is how many of the top-selling apps make money. In a recent example, a 13-year old boy from Somerset spent £3,700 on chests of virtual gold coins and other game-enhancing content.

Last month, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) launched an investigation into the way web- and app-based games manufacturers market their products to children. The investigation will discuss whether such games may be in breach of The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, which prohibit “including in an advertisement a direct exhortation to children to buy advertised products or persuade their parents or other adults to buy advertised products for them”. The latter practice is more commonly known as “pester power”. The OFT is also considering whether the full cost of these games is made clear at the outset. As part of the investigation, the regulator has written to games developers and hosting services, and has asked consumers to contact it with information about potentially misleading, commercially aggressive or otherwise unfair marketing. Cavendish Elithorn, the OFT senior director for goods and consumer, said: “We are concerned that children and their parents could be subject to unfair pressure to purchase when they are playing games they thought were free, but which could actually run up substantial costs”.

The OFT’s next steps are expected to be published by October 2013.