A guide to apps & in-app purchases | ACMA

A guide to apps & in-app purchases

Nowadays, there’s an app for just about everything. While most of us will have used an app on a smartphone or tablet, some of us are more ‘app savvy’ than others. But even savvy consumers should understand how to use apps and online app stores safely, how to get help if you need it and what your consumer rights are if you hit a problem.

Use the links below to get info about:

Apps—the basics

How to buy and download apps

Using apps safely on your device

Buying apps through direct carrier billing

Unauthorised or unintended app purchases

Seeking a refund for apps and in-app purchases

Misleading and deceptive conduct

Managing your expenses

Protecting your personal information

Apps—the basics

Apps are pieces of software designed to be used on your mobile device, tablet or computer. They can help you out with a range of activities, including navigation, shopping, restaurant reviews, banking, social networking, music, videos and games.

In-app purchases are items you purchase through an app, once you have already installed it on your device. Examples include credits towards bonus game levels, 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 apps for children are age appropriate. A good idea is to use the app yourself before giving it to your child (just like you might watch a movie before letting your child see it), to make sure the content is appropriate. The Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner has further information about popular games, social networking and other apps. Some not-for-profit websites, such as Commonsensemedia, also provide information and tools to help parents choose apps by ratings based on age, learning potential and overall quality.

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How to buy and download apps

Each mobile device uses an operating system, the most common being:

  • 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’ll usually need to visit the online store for your operating system on your device. Android devices contain an option to allow apps to be downloaded from websites outside Google Play. However, this is not recommended by Google Play, as the apps have not been checked and approved prior to sale. Here’s what you’ll typically see when downloading an app:

Android

Android devices use the Google Play store.

Google Play store jpg

You can download many apps for free, or pay a 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 bill, if your mobile service provider offers this service.

iOS

Apple devices use the App Store.

Apple store jpg

You can download many apps for free, or pay a one-off or subscription fee. You can pay for downloads by providing your credit card details to the App Store or using gift cards.

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Using apps safely on your device

As with any software, there are 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). Instances of malware targeting mobiles is on the increase. 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, however, you should be aware of the risk of fake reviews.

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Buying apps through direct carrier billing

Some major mobile providers now offer direct carrier billing, which allows you to charge purchases (and in-app purchases) from an app store directly to your monthly phone bill, or deduct the cost from your prepaid balance.

See our guide to direct carrier billing for more information.

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Unauthorised or unintended app 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 app-related purchases charged to your online store account is to enable password protection. For parents, password protection also gives you more control over what apps your children download or buy on a phone or 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 when 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 and 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 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.

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Seeking a refund for apps and in-app purchases

If you’ve had an unauthorised or unintended app (or in-app) purchase charged to your online store account, 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 you made the purchase—for example, Google Play offers a refund through the store, on your device. After this time, you may need to submit a request online, or the store will direct you to the developer of the app.

Other app stores will either have a process for seeking a refund or will direct you to the app developer directly. Contact the app store or app developer as soon as possible after the purchase is made.

Here’s where to find refund information:

Who else can help recover unauthorised payments?

It can be hard to know where to go for a refund on unauthorised app purchases. If you're having difficulty dealing with an app store or app developer, there are other avenues, such as contacting:

  • your bank about any unauthorised charges on your credit card
  • your telecommunications service provider about unexpected charges on your phone bill if you use direct carrier billing
  • the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman if you can’t resolve a dispute with your service provider about charges.

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Misleading and deceptive conduct

Just like retailers selling 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 include contacting:

  • 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 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 in-app purchases.

Apps must also make it sufficiently clear when an in-app purchase is being made. Children in particular can be easily confused and make in-app ‘purchases’ without realising that the transaction actually involves real money—a problem identified by the ACCC.

The ACCC has more information about in-app purchases and consumer rights.

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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—and getting bill shock.

Before you buy, decide what sort of user you are

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? Telcos often provide information on their websites to help consumers estimate their likely usage. You can also ask your intended provider for help.

Size matters!

Before downloading an app, check how big it is in megabytes (MB)—your online app store should provide this information in the following ways:

  • on the Apple store, the size can be found in the app details under ‘Information’
  • Android users can find out how to check the app size in Google Play here
  • Windows app users can find the size under ‘Additional Information’ (scroll to the end of the app description)

Keep an eye on data usage

You can also chew up data when you use the apps you’ve downloaded. The functionality of many apps relies on online access to upload or update information. So, even if you’re not using an app, it can be updating information automatically in the background.

Try to keep track of how much data you’re 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.

Many phones provide a breakdown of data usage per app in the settings, or there are also apps available that help you keep track of how much data each app on your mobile uses.

Get smart about app data usage

Use a Wi-Fi network (for example, through a fixed broadband connection at home, particularly if your home connection is unlimited) 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 included monthly mobile data allowance.

Close apps if they are not being used. Turn off features in apps or on your mobile device that automatically use up data (such as receiving push notifications). On some operating systems, you may also be able to turn off mobile-data entirely or for individual apps.   

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, you can turn off any auto-play function to avoid unnecessary data downloads. In May 2014, Facebook changed its default setting to enable videos and advertisements to play automatically when users browse their news feed. But you can turn off this auto-play setting.

If you're a heavy data user, you might consider an 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.

The Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner also has parental resources on their iParent portal to help manage young people’s online activities. 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 using apps, talk to 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.

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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 and usually cannot be purchased without changing certain factory settings in your phone, which is not recommended. 

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 you install it. 

More useful tips on securing your mobile phones and devices is available at:

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Last updated: 17 August 2017