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Google settles in-app lawsuit

WASHINGTON – Federal officials Thursday said Google has agreed to settle charges and repay $19 million to consumers whose children were allegedly deceived into making mobile purchases through the Android app store.

Since 2011, according to the Federal Trade Commission, Google made it too easy for children using Android phones to buy items ranging from 99 cents to $200 in kids-oriented games without a parent’s permission.

The settlement is the latest in the FTC’s three-year investigation into in-app purchases on devices running software by Apple, Amazon and Google. The enforcement agency has said the purchases are deceptive and particularly harmful for children. Apple agreed to a $32.5 million settlement last January. Amazon in July said it would fight similar charges brought by the FTC.

The FTC has alleged that the major technology companies did not properly disclose to parents and children the ability to purchase items within games and other child-oriented apps. Parents have filed civil lawsuits against the companies, too, criticizing the firms and apps developers for what they describe as predatory practices that target children to buy $99 gold coins and other items within games. Children, they say, were at times able to buy those items – later billed to parents – without any safeguards such as apps store passwords. Apple has changed its practices, and Amazon has offered parental safety tools to prevent unwanted purchases.

At first, Google didn’t require passwords for in-app purchases. In 2012, though, following criticism from parents, it began to use pop-up password boxes. The FTC said the company didn’t explain, however, that by putting in a password once, kids had a 30-minute window to rack up as many charges as they wanted. The FTC said even as Google faced a class-action lawsuit and heavy criticism – along with Apple and Amazon – over in-app purchases being too easy for children, the company didn’t do enough to explain its practices or change them to protect consumers.

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