In the fall of 2011, when Glynnis Bohannon first noticed a slew of mysterious charges on her credit card, she felt certain that her son, Ian, had been spending frivolously. 

It turns out she was both right and wrong.

Ian, 12 at the time, was a fan of Ninja Saga, a game hosted on Facebook that allowed users to purchase in-game goods for real money. Without realizing it, he had spent nearly $1,000, in small increments, by performing simple actions within the game. Watching her son play, Glynnis couldn’t believe how seamless the process was: There were no built-in speed bumps that explained or slowed down the purchases.

“There was no dollar symbol; there was no money amount,” she told reporter Nate Halverson in this week’s Reveal episode. “There was no Visa symbol. Nothing popped up and said, ‘Do you want to proceed with this transaction of $19.95?’” Instead, it was just click, charge, repeat. 

The Bohannon family filed suit against Facebook and settled in 2016. In the years that followed, a trove of internal documents detailing what the social media giant knew about these hidden charges remained secret. Then, late last year, we filed a motion to have them unsealed. We won.

The more than 135 pages of emails, memos and other documents brought into focus a calculated, multiyear effort by the social network to dupe children out of their parents’ money. They show that Facebook employees were aware that games on the platform with so-called friendly fraud problems were “defaulting to the highest-cost setting” – and that in-game purchases “(don’t) necessarily look like ‘real’ money to a minor.” Nevertheless, higher-ups at Facebook ignored these warnings in service of their bottom line.

We asked Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for an interview. He turned us down. But shortly after we released our investigation in January, two U.S. senators and a coalition of children’s advocacy groups sent letters to Facebook, demanding information about refunds and remedies. In June, we circled back around and found that the social media giant still has not changed one of its key policies that bamboozled children. 

Facebook is not the only company that has dealt with this issue. In 2014, the Federal Trade Commission forced Google to cough up a minimum of $19 million to refund consumers who had been unfairly billed for in-app charges racked up by children. The year before that, the commission settled two similar lawsuits against Apple and Amazon. 

Despite these developments, it’s still common for parents to encounter unwanted charges their children incurred while playing video games. If this story feels familiar, here are some steps to take:

Learn more about the gaming system

Our reporting shows that Facebook was well aware of children who were racking up illegitimate in-game charges. Employees even referred to them as “whales,” a popular nickname within the casino industry for big spenders, and refused to refund them. In other words, they had an opportunity to address the problem and declined to do so.

Yet other companies with game platforms have developed robust tools to control children’s spending. Microsoft Xbox allows adult users to create “child accounts” that protect payment information. On Xbox, parents also can set spending limits within the Microsoft store and enable a feature called “Ask a parent,” which triggers an approval process for all potential purchases. Similarly, on newer PlayStation models, children’s accounts don’t include the built-in “wallet” necessary to make purchases. In fact, the system’s terms of service expressly forbid children from creating adult accounts – the only type that can be linked to credit cards.

Customizing these features can be a complex and time-consuming process. But the Entertainment Software Rating Board has a detailed, step-by-step guide to navigating parental controls on many major gaming systems.

Understand exactly how purchases happen 

It’s helpful to sit down with your child and actually watch them play the game. That’s how Glynnis Bohannon, the mother in our episode, realized her son’s purchases were accidental. Understanding the mechanics of in-game charges will help clarify whether they stem from the game’s design, a failure to set up proper parental controls, or something else.

So what should parents monitor? One feature is in-game currency, such as coins or diamonds, according to Jamie Madigan, the author of “Getting Gamers: The Psychology of Video Games and Their Impact on the People Who Play Them.” Some companies “put a lot of cognitive load on the user” by creating complex exchange rates between digital money and real dollars, he said. It becomes easy to lose track of an object’s real-world value. 

“We don’t do the math in our heads to keep track of, ‘How much does one purple diamond cost?’” he said. Some developers “purposely obfuscate and make it difficult to understand how much you’re spending.”

Another thing to watch for: features that intentionally make gameplay more difficult or frustrating until a player caves and spends money to bypass them. These take on a variety of forms: Players might get locked out of the game for hours if they’ve lost their last life; or a task that initially took seconds, like building a structure, might gradually stretch into minutes or hours. It may become impossible to beat the game or even advance without spending money. At points like these, a player’s impatience becomes an opportunity.

“We kind of decide, ‘This is too complicated,’” Madigan said. “We let the quick-moving, emotional, more intuitive part of our brain take over.”

It’s also worth paying attention to how seamless the transaction process is. Are there built-in safeguards, such as a password or touch ID prompt, to authorize payments? If the game is subscription-based, does it renew the subscription – and charge a credit card – regularly and without notifications?

Learn about other people’s experiences with the game

“Look at the reviews!” said Shira Chess, an assistant professor of entertainment and media studies at the University of Georgia. “People are going to note in the reviews whether the game has unfair play practices. The ratings are going to tell you a lot.”

Consulting gaming review sites like Pocket Gamer is also a good idea, Chess added. Gamers can be a discerning bunch, and if a product is employing manipulative design tactics or hiding charges, they might be the first to expose it.

Set up protections with your bank

Parents who prefer to control their children’s video game spending through their bank have three options, according to Karisse Hendrick, a fraud and chargeback consultant for Fortune 500 companies:

  1. Set up credit card alerts that are synced with all video games a child is playing. In many cases, the appropriate merchant category code is 7994. This way, every transaction related to a game will be flagged for approval, and a parent will be immediately notified. Not all banks offer this option, so the first step is to ask if it’s possible, Hendrick said.
  2. Set up a new credit card dedicated exclusively to games, then monitor its activity closely. If your child’s spending goes above a certain threshold, or if you decide she needs a break, you can simply deactivate the card.
  3. Set up a prepaid card with a spending limit. Because not all gaming systems accept these cards, it’s useful to make sure you have a “registered” prepaid card, which often have better success rates, Hendrick said.

If, after exploring these options, your child continues to spend money on games, it’s possible to report it as fraud to your bank. But there may be consequences to doing so. Glynnis Bohannon’s bank asked her to make a felony complaint against her son, which she refused to do. And, according to Hendrick, if you try to recoup money by claiming your child committed fraud, a gaming company might shut down your account entirely, effectively wiping out every legitimate purchase you’ve ever made.

“If you bought five $50 games on PlayStation and (your child) accessed a fraud chargeback, chances are he’s not going to have access to those products anymore,” Hendrick said. “These companies are going to protect themselves.”

Have a conversation

Because some games go out of their way to blur the line between real money and digital currency, discussing money and internet safety with your child is a great first step to avoiding unwanted charges, Hendrick said. 

“In our circles, this is the new birds and bees conversation,” Hendrick said. “Within that conversation should also be, ‘If I trust you with my credit card, this is attached to real money. And it’s going to come out of your allowance.’”  

Shira Chess, the Georgia professor, agrees. Attempting to closely police a child or teenager’s exposure to screens is an exhausting – if not futile – task, she said. It’s better to offer a framework of digital literacy: Teach them how to secure their digital privacy. Teach them how money is spent online. 

“There’s no such thing as a free app, just like there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” she said. “Once we all sort of get on board with that and start asking the right questions, then we all will become better consumers of apps.”

Report the problem

If you’ve determined that a game might be employing deceptive techniques to charge children, regardless of parental controls, the FTC is interested in hearing from you. Through its Complaint Assistant portal, the commission looks for patterns in consumers’ concerns that denote fraud and abuse. 

It’s also possible to report concerns to your state attorney general’s office. Although regulations around in-game charges can vary state by state, many offices have departments specifically geared toward internet and technology concerns, such as the New York Attorney General’s Bureau of Internet and Technology.

Tell us your story

We’re going to continue reporting on unwanted charges in games played on Facebook. If you’ve had an experience with this issue and would like to share your story, please do so in the form below. A reporter may be in touch to follow up, and we won’t use any of your information without your consent.

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Byard Duncan is a reporter and producer for  engagement and collaborations for Reveal. He manages Reveal’s Reporting Networks, which provide more than 1,000 local journalists across the U.S. with resources and training to continue Reveal investigations in their communities. He also helps lead audience engagement initiatives around Reveal’s stories and assists local reporters in elevating their work to a national platform. In addition to Reveal, Duncan’s work has appeared in GQ, Esquire, The California Sunday Magazine and Columbia Journalism Review, among other outlets. He was part of Reveal’s Behind the Smiles project team, which was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2019. He is the recipient of two Edward R. Murrow Awards, a National Headliner Award, an Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, and two first-place awards for feature storytelling from the Society of Professional Journalists and Best of the West. Duncan is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.