Have you ever reviewed your bank account and noticed a bunch of random charges from Apple that you don’t remember making?
Chances are that you have. There’s a reason for this. A recently exposed Facebook memo from 2011 encourages developers to produce deceptive in-app purchases for children’s products in the hopes of generating more revenue. In Facebook’s unfortunate memo, one bullet point read:
“Friendly Fraud — what it is, why it’s challenging, and why you shouldn’t try to block it.”
Sounds pretty sinister, doesn’t it?
I’m not innocent. I’ve been a mobile product manager working in the children’s game industry since 2016 and I have admittingly put some less-than-noble in-app purchase tactics in a recent app I managed. I am not proud of this, and I’ve since asked myself how after a series of small decisions, I wound up tricking children after entering the industry to do nothing more than provide them with good content. To answer this question, I felt it important to document what friendly fraud looks like and speculate on how both developers and consumers can do better.
We’ll start by reviewing some categories of Friendly Fraud I’ve come across while researching various children’s games.
Tactic #1 — Ambiguous Trial Agreements
Free trials are a pretty common tool for subscription apps. Apple’s Paid Applications Agreement* requires every subscription app’s sign-up screen to include details like the subscription name, duration, and some details on the trial. This requirement, however, is now being executed as deceptively as some medical warning labels.
Like the rambling small-text warnings on over-the-counter cold medicine, subscription details can be made small and hard to read. On the apps I’ve worked on, we circumvented Apple’s rules by making the text color very similar to the background, creating the illusion of the text being almost translucent. You can see something similar at work in this screenshot.