"I was shocked how difficult it was to get a refund": Tegan DeClark with her daughter Amelia. Photo: Simon O'Dwyer
All Amelia DeClark wanted to do was feed her virtual horse on her mother's iPad.
But within 30 minutes, the three-year-old had racked up more than $100 after her little fingers frantically swiped across the brightly coloured buttons on the free My Horse app, confirming real-time payments from her mother's iTunes account.
"The first time I knew about it was when I looked at my bank account," Amelia's mother, Tegan DeClark from Toowoomba, Queensland said.
The communication consumer group, ACCAN is calling on the Australian competition regulator, the ACCC, to force free gaming apps to disclose whether the games require "in-app" purchases to continue playing.
"The apps are misleading" said Teresa Corbin, ACCAN's chief executive, who describes them as "freemium".
"The child wouldn't necessarily understand it is real money ... and they think it's part of the game and part of the simulation."
The My Horse app had urged Amelia to buy more food for her horse, but she needed 2500 credits. These credits cost $109, which was charged straight to Ms DeClark's credit card.
After one week spent on the phone to Apple, Ms DeClark was finally refunded the money, but only on a "goodwill" basis.
"I was shocked how difficult it was to get a refund," said Ms DeClark, a real estate agent.
Ms Corbin estimates there are thousands of free mobile and tablet apps like My Horse aimed at children which encourage users to buy credits for virtual incentives such as food, rubies, diamonds or even to proceed to the next level of the game.
In a submission to the Consumer Affairs Advisory Council, ACCAN has targeted three apps - The Simpsons: Tapped Out, The Hobbit: Kingdoms, and Tap Paradise Cove - all of which blatantly encourage in-app purchases, Ms Corbin said.
The peak group suggests that gaming apps should include a simple logo informing the user of any potential costs involved in playing the game. The submission also suggests that Apple and Google app stores take responsibility for accepting and resolving complaints about apps purchased through their Australian stores.
When playing The Simpsons app, users are told they have to wait 90 days for a crop of corn to grow. Or, more appealingly, they can complete the task instantly if they purchase 1060 doughnuts, which will cost $48.58 on iTunes.
In another scene on the app, the character Homer says: "Wow. I'd spend any amount of money - real actual money - to have a town like this!"
In March, five-year-old Danny Kitchen gained international attention when he asked for the password to his family's iPad and managed to spend the equivalent of more than $2500 on "darts" and "bombs" to battle zombies in the game Zombies vs Ninja. His mother, Sharon Kitchen, told the British media that he was on the game for less than 15 minutes.
It is possible to curb in-app purchases with existing parental controls on the iPad and iPhone as reported here.
Apple did not return calls.