With the mass take-up of smartphones and tablets, mobile apps have become an everyday part of life. While most Australians will be familiar with apps, many others are only beginning to use them. But even savvy consumers need to understand how to use apps and online app stores safely, what their consumer rights are when they hit a problem and how to get help.
This guide is for all consumers—those who are new to using apps, parents and children, and regular app users. It has information about understanding app basics, avoiding unintended purchases, getting refunds, dodging bill shock, and using apps safely for both children and adults.
A brief description of apps, including the difference between apps and in-app purchases, and how parents can identify suitable apps for their children.
An introduction to mobile operating systems, online app stores and how to download apps.
Using apps safely on your device
Some of the risks of downloading apps, and tips on using app stores and their rating systems.
Some telcos let you charge app and in-app purchases straight to your phone or internet bill. See how this billing method works, ways to make it work for you and information about opting out.
Advice about preventing unintended app or in-app purchases, how to obtain a refund from app stores for unauthorised purchases and who else may help recover unauthorised charges.
Information about what to do if you’ve bought an app that doesn’t live up to its advertised claims, and a word of caution about ‘free’ apps.
Guidance on how to prevent apps from using up your data and causing bill shock, as well as advice for children and teens about how to manage app use.
Tips about how to keep your personal information private when downloading apps and links to other information about staying safe online.
Apps are a piece of software designed to be used on your mobile device. They have an almost infinite range of purposes including navigation, shopping, restaurant reviews, banking, social networking, music, videos and games.
In-app purchases are items you purchase using an app, once you have already installed the initial app on your mobile device. Examples include credits towards bonus game levels and music, e-books and movies.
Apps cater to a wide range of ages, from young children and teenagers to adults. For parents, it’s important that the apps accessible to children are age appropriate. Some not-for-profit websites such as Commonsensemedia provide information and tools to help parents choose apps by ratings based on age, learning potential and overall quality.
How to buy and download apps
Each mobile device uses an operating system. The most common operating systems are:
- Android (used by a range of manufacturers including Samsung, Sony, HTC and Google)
- iOS (Apple devices)
- Windows Phone (Microsoft devices)
To download an app, you need to visit the online store for your operating system, on your device. Here are the two most common examples:
Android devices use the Google Play store.
You can download many apps for free or pay a small one-off or subscription fee. You can pay for downloads by providing your credit card details to Google Play, using gift cards or through your mobile service provider’s bills, if they provide this service.
Apple devices use the App Store.
You can download many apps for free, or pay a small one-off or subscription fee. You can pay for downloads by providing your credit card details to the App Store or using gift cards.
Using apps safely on your device
As with any computer software, there are some risks associated with downloading apps to your mobile device. These include protecting your personal information and ensuring appropriate use by young people.
Another risk is that the app you download may carry viruses or malware (malicious software). However, mobile security software is available to protect your phone or tablet from viruses and malware.
Both Android and iOS have star rating systems within their app user interface. These star ratings, based on user feedback, relate to a number of aspects of each app, including usability, usefulness and user safety. The ratings may help you to decide whether to download and use an app.
Buying apps through direct account billing
Some major telco providers now offer direct account billing, which allows customers to charge purchases from an app store (and in-app purchases) directly to their monthly phone or internet bill.
At the moment, Google Play is the only participating online store, with the offer available to Telstra and Optus customers who use Android mobile devices. This may extend to other providers in the future.
Billing limits, passwords and opting out
While direct account billing offers consumers another convenient way to buy digital content, it also comes with the risk of unauthorised purchases being charged to your bill, once direct billing has been set up on your mobile device. For example, a child may purchase an app on a parent’s handset without their consent.
To help protect customers, service providers cap the amount that can be charged to your bill per individual purchase and per month. You also have some flexibility to set your own limits but may need to contact your provider to do so.
Setting password protections on your phone and Google account will also help prevent unauthorised or unintended purchases.
If you have set up direct billing but want to opt out of this billing method you can do so by contacting your provider.
More information about direct account billing can be found from the providers:
Unauthorised or unintended app purchases
Preventing unintended or unauthorised app-related purchases
Smartphones and other mobile devices have a range of password protections and settings that give you control over how digital content, including apps and in-app purchases, can be accessed from your device.
The easiest way to keep track of the app-related purchases charged to your online store account is to ensure you have password protection on your account. As a parent, password protection also gives you more control over what apps your children download or buy on a phone or mobile device linked to your online account.
Passwords are normally required before buying apps from an online store and for in-app purchases. However, you should be aware that some app stores allow a short time window (15 to 30 minutes) after a password has been entered during which other purchases can be made without needing to re-enter the password. You can usually change settings on your online store account to require a password each time, even immediately after a prior purchase.
Settings on many smartphones and other mobile devices can also be changed, via password access, to limit what types of digital content can be downloaded from online stores. For example, you may be able to block all app purchase, or all in-app purchases, but allow other digital content such as music.
To find out what controls you have available, check with your online store or look at your device manufacturer’s website. Your telecommunications service provider may also be able to help.
Here are some useful links about setting password protection and restrictions on app-related content by major providers:
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) also has helpful advice about restricting in-app purchases on Apple and Android devices.
Seeking a refund for apps and in-app purchases
If an unauthorised or unintended app purchase or in-app purchase has been charged to your online store account, there are steps you can take to report this problem and seek a refund. You should report your claim as quickly as possible to the relevant online app store.
Some app stores offer an automatic refund within a short time after a purchase is made—for example, Google Play, allows you to return it within 15 minutes and receive a full refund simply and quickly. This can be done from your device using these steps.
In other cases, app stores will either have a process for seeking a refund or may direct you to the app developer directly. Contact the app store or app developer as soon as possible.
Google Play directs customers to an app developer and provides contact details, while customers of the Apple app store can seek a refund using these online steps. There's also information available about assistance with refunds from Microsoft and Blackberry online stores.
Who else can help recover unauthorised payments?
It can be hard to know who to approach when trying to obtain a refund for unauthorised app purchases. If you're having difficulty in dealing with an app store or app developer, there are other places you can go:
- Talk to your bank about any unauthorised charges on your credit card.
- If you use direct account billing (see above), talk to your telecommunications service provider about unauthorised charges on your phone or internet bill.
- If you can’t resolve a dispute with your service provider about charges, contact the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman.
Misleading and deceptive conduct
Just like merchants who sell physical products in Australia, app stores and their apps must comply with Australian consumer laws and regulations. These include ensuring that stores must not make false, misleading or deceptive claims. Apps also need to match their description and function as advertised.
If you believe that an app you've purchased does not work as intended, or the advertising has been false, misleading or deceptive, then you have a right to make a complaint and seek a refund.
Your first step should be to contact the app store or app developer to give them an opportunity to address your concern (see Seeking a refund for apps and in-app purchases and Who else can help recover unauthorised payments?). If you are not satisfied with their response, other avenues to seek assistance include:
- your local state or territory office of fair trading
- the ACCC, which also deals with consumer protections.
The ACCC website has more information about making a consumer complaint.
‘Free’ apps and in-app purchases
Some apps are advertised as being free, but require significant in-app purchases to maximise their use (for example, games that require you to buy ‘weapons’ or ‘tools’ to reach new levels, or apps that also require subscriptions). If this is the case, apps must clearly disclose at the point of purchase whether it requires significant in-app purchases.
Apps must also make it sufficiently clear when an in-app purchase is being made. The ACCC has identified as a particular problem confusion among children who make in-app ‘purchases’ without realising that the transaction actually involves real money.
The ACCC has more information about in-app purchases and consumer rights.
Managing your expenses
Apps are fun and handy, but they also take up data to download and, in many cases, use. Here are some tips to help you or your children avoid using up lots of your mobile data allowance or risk getting bill shock.
Before you buy
When choosing a mobile plan, think about your online use, including how many apps you are likely to use (are you a light, medium, or heavy user?) Telco service providers often provide information on their websites to help consumers estimate their likely usage. You can also your intended provider for help.
Before downloading an app, check how big it is in megabytes (MB)—your online app store should provide this information. This information is easier to look up in some app stores than others—here’s how to find the data size of Android apps.
Tips about monitoring data usage
You may also chew up data when you use the apps you have downloaded. The functionality of many apps relies on online access to upload or update information. Even if you are not using an app, it can be updating information automatically in the background.
Try to keep track of how much data you are using. Most customers will receive automatic spend management alerts, but there are a range of other tools available. Contact your provider to see what is available.
There are also apps available that help you keep track of how much data each app on your mobile uses.
Be smart about app data usage
Use a Wi-Fi network (for example, through a fixed broadband connection at home) for larger app data usage activities. Using Wi-Fi is generally free or cheaper than using 3G and 4G services and won’t use up your mobile included monthly data allowance.
Close apps if they are not being used. You can also turn off features in apps or on your mobile device that automatically use up data (such as receiving push notifications).
Some popular social media apps have an auto-play function that automatically downloads and plays videos or other media while browsing in the app. If you use social media apps, another way of avoiding unnecessary data downloads is to turn off any auto-play function. In May 2014, Facebook changed a default setting to enable videos and advertisements to play automatically when users browse their Facebook news feed. But you can turn off this auto-play setting.
If you're a heavy data user, you might consider a phone or internet plan that includes unlimited data.
There’s also a range of educational materials online to help children understand about data usage and the real costs of using excess data. The ASIC MoneySmart website has several handy presentations.
Cybersmart.gov.au also has parental resources to help manage online usage by young people. For managing app usage, the best controls are parental supervision when downloading apps and entering passwords to authorise in-app purchases.
Complaints about data usage and charges
If you have a dispute about high data use that may be occurring via apps, raise your concern with your telco provider. If your problem is not resolved satisfactorily by your provider, you can seek help from the TIO. They can assist with disputed charges following unexpected high usage by an app.
Protecting your personal information
Protecting your personal information such as your name, address, bank or email account details and passwords from cyber identity theft is very important when you're buying an app or using an app on your mobile. Make sure you buy apps from reputable app stores such as Google Play, Apple App Store or Apps for Windows (Microsoft) where secure payment is available. Apps from unknown or unreliable web sites may contain software that compromises your personal information when downloaded.
All mobile operating systems have settings to control the level of personal information that can be accessed by apps. For example, some apps may want to access your location or address book. Make sure you choose the privacy settings that you're comfortable with when an app is installed.
More useful tips on securing your mobile phones and devices is available at Stay Smart Online.
The Cybersafety Help Button provides a one-stop-shop for cybersafety information and it can be downloaded to your mobile device or computer.
Google’s Safety Center also tips to help families and other users manage the security and privacy of personal data while navigating through new online technologies.