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Klobuchar, citing exorbitant costs of smurfberries, urges more disclosure in iPhone games

Klobuchar cited a Maryland child’s inadvertent $1,400 purchase for items in the iPhone’s “Smurf’s Village” app in asking the FTC for mandatory cost disclosure warnings.

WASHINGTON — During picking season, one can go up to the Lake Ida Apple Farm in Lake Park and get a bushel of HoneyCrisp or Red Baron apples for $40 a bushel. You’d have to get in the car, head over there, pick the apples, cart them to the register and pay, but you’d have a pretty good sized harvest (and enough for a tasty snack for the ride home).

Or, while playing the “free” game Smurf’s Village on your iPhone, you could purchase up a wheelbarrow full of smurfberries for $59. Assuming a standard 40-liter wheelbarrow (40 liters = 1.135 bushels), the smurfberries actually cost 30 percent more per unit than the apples grown by Rick and Sharon Julian in northwest Minnesota.

Smurfberries, of course, are fictional berries, available only the world of the Smurfs and purchasable in the game. But it’s not the cost of the smurfberries that has Sen. Amy Klobuchar up in arms (though one assumes she wouldn’t authorize those charges on her own cell phone bill), rather it’s the ease of purchase.

Rather than have to enter a credit card number for each purchase, the smurfberries are automatically purchasable for as little as two taps of a finger because, once a charge is authorized via password, a standard iPhone won’t prompt for a password again for 15 minutes no matter how many items are bought. The charges are automatically assessed to the credit card on file in the phone owner’s iTunes store profile.

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One Maryland eight-year-old, cited in the Washington Post, racked up a $1,400 bill that way gussying up her in-app mushroom house.

In a letter to Jon Leibowitz, head of the Federal Trade Commission, Klobuchar called for disclosure rules so that parents know about charges in the game.

“A child who downloads an application on his or her smartphone may not understand that, although the application itself is free, each individual service within that application has its own price tag,” she wrote. “It isn’t until the bill arrives that parents realize these games come with hidden costs.”

Capcom Entertainment, which built the Smurfs Village game, recently updated it to add a disclosure at the start of the game notifying users about potential in-app charges. Not all free-to-download games have that disclaimer, and there are presently no rules requiring one.

Sharon Julian, by the way, said she’d rather have the less-expensive apples anyway. “They’re more tasty.”

Update: State GOP Chairman Tony Sutton, unimpressed, responded with a statement charging that Minnesota’s senior senator is wasting time on a trivial issue.

“Doesn’t a United States senator have better things to do with her time than regulate Smurfberries? With our troops in harm’s way during a time of record deficits and unacceptably high unemployment, it’s incredible that Amy Klobuchar would waste her energies on such trivial matters. Klobuchar’s latest public relations gambit speaks to a broader problem about her time in Washington. While Minnesotans are concerned about jobs and the economy, our senior senator is concerned with ‘issues’ like Iphone applications. It’s silly and Minnesotans deserve better.”