How Young Gamers Can Quietly Ruin Their Parents' Finances
As your happy family eats breakfast around the kitchen table, you sit down, open the new credit card statement, and promptly shit your paints. There are thousands of dollars in charges, spread across dozens of minor purchases, all to some kind of video game company. You immediately think you've been the victim of identity theft or some kind of hack ... and then one of your children starts looking very guilty.
This scenario, as it turns out, is becoming ridiculously common. We talked to four parents (Carrie, Amanda, Madison, and Courtney), each of whom saw their kids secretly run up over $1,000 on games, microtransactions, and the like. For the most part, they each found out that there wasn't much they could do about it.
Financial Ruin Is But A Few Secret Clicks Away!
We're not here to tell you to never have children, or to abandon the ones you've got. All we're saying is that there's a significant chance they'll rob your sorry ass blind.
Here, go do a search for "kids stole credit card for Fortnite" on YouTube or Google, and you'll get a ton of examples, plus footage of it happening. (It's free stuff, plus instant YouTube fame!) Here's a kid who quietly spent $7,600 on a FIFA game, another who secretly spent $6,000 on Jurassic World. There aren't currently stats out there for how often this kind of thing happens, because as we'll get into, there's not a whole lot parents can do about it but pay the damned bill. It doesn't show up on crime stats because they don't report it as such. After all, no one wants to give their own kid a criminal record.
There's also the embarrassment factor. For some reason, parents aren't crazy about admitting that their 12-year-old blew a year's worth of car payments on outfits for their video game character. You're probably already judging these people as negligent, but stop and think. How many online services have stored your credit card info so that you don't have to type it every time? Well, if you have a child in the house who doesn't fully grasp the concepts of money or morality, you're sitting on a ticking time bomb.
"I approved the first charge. It was for the game," says Courtney. "But then he kept buying ... It didn't even ask for that security number on the back. All you had to do was click, and it went through." A few thousand dollars' worth of clicks, in fact.
"My son and his friends bought $1,600 worth of games on Steam," says Carrie. "They weren't all for him. He would buy copies for his friends, and then all the add-ons, which cost even more. I check my credit card once a week. I didn't get any alerts, so I didn't know anything was wrong until I checked the next Friday and I saw all of these charges."
Ah, the era of seamless online commerce. Who wants to jump through a bunch of annoying hoops with every purchase? But if you've got a kid in the house with access to all of the devices, that means all that's stopping them is their own undeveloped moral compass. "The only barrier there was a button you need to check saying, 'Are you 18 years or older?'" says Madison. "That was it." Has any child in history ever clicked "No" on that question? We'd honestly like to know.
But hey, don't services offer to send purchase confirmation messages precisely for this reason? They sure do. Just ask Amanda. "We were supposed to get email messages about each purchase so that we knew what was bought. But [my son] logged onto my Gmail and deleted those messages."
Again, remember as you read this that we need children to continue the species. We don't intend for these anecdotes to act as birth control, though we realize they probably will.
This Can Happen Terrifyingly Fast
If you haven't played a video game in the last several years, you'll be surprised at how the business model has changed. Lots of games are free to play ... but include all sorts of addictive loops and social pressure to buy outfits and power-ups for a couple of bucks each. They also put in digital prizes that play out exactly like slot machines, called "loot boxes." And like the drunken housewife shocked to find she's been at the riverboat slots for ten straight hours, those little charges add up fast.
Scan the horror stories, and you'll see the spending usually happens over the course of only a few days. So even if you're careful and check your balances once a week, that won't help. Madison did exactly that, and it didn't stop her kids from running up over $1,000 in Fortnite merch made entirely of pixels. Amanda, same deal. "It was over a period of five days, all at night. I had no idea until I checked." Carrie had the pleasure of finding out only when her husband's card was declined. "He called to find over 100 charges had been put on it since he last checked." In this case, the credit card company did try to confirm by phone ... but the kids also had access to said phone.
And if you're the type who only looks at the credit card statement when they mail it to you at the end of the month ... god help you. "It was pages long," says Courtney, "and each line was a $5 or $1 charge for different games. Going down, it was 1, 1, 5, 1, 5 , 5 1, 5 5, 5, 5, 1, 5, 1, 5, and so on. This went on for almost two weeks, and because of when the statement came in, about another week after that. Altogether it was over $4,000."
What would you do in that situation, as a parent? If your first response isn't "Panic," then you're probably lying. Says Courtney: "I immediately called my credit card about it being stolen. I started crying and my husband was there holding me. And that's when our 14-year-old came in. He asked what was wrong, and we told him. He froze like a deer in headlights."
There Really Isn't Much You Can Do
So you figure you can simply call the credit card company. After all, you didn't approve the purchase, so surely you can get those charges reversed. Right? Only if you're one of the lucky few. Credit card companies sometimes offer zero-liability protection -- but usually with the caveat that the owner "exercised reasonable care in safeguarding your card from loss or theft." Plus cardholders are liable for up to $50 of each unauthorized purchase from the Truth in Lending Act ... which is fine if your kids bought a Tesla or a really fancy sweater, but not if they ran up a huge bill a few bucks at a time.
OK, so maybe go beg the game company for your money back? Steam refunds games, but only within 14 days and with less than two hours played. Other companies, like Fortnite's Epic Games, only refund the last three purchases in a 30-day span. Madison even asked her lawyer, exploring the idea of going after the credit card company for not doing enough to stop fishy purchases. "[He] told us, 'There's nothing you can do. You'll spend hundreds of thousands and not get anything done.'"
Remember, this isn't like a stranger stole the card and bought a bunch of shit. In that case, you'd just call the cops and report everything as theft. Do you really want to file a police report on your own kid (and it is up the parent to decide if police are involved)? Once it's in court, it's up to the DA and the jury on how far to push it. Here, we'll let Carrie paint you a picture:
"I called the credit card company after talking with my husband, and after talking with them, I immediately suspected my son. When he came home with his friend, I asked him about it, and he immediately blushed and I knew. But then he pointed the finger at his friend. 'He helped!' They both explained in about a minute, both blaming each other, and that's when I called the police, because I was so fed up at the time and I wanted to scare them a little. I had enough of their BS. His friend called his mom to come over, saying we were throwing him in jail. The police and his mother came over at the same time.
"[My son] accused his friend, his friend accused me for allowing it to happen for so long, I accused him of being a thief. His mother accused me of being a bad mother giving [my son] whatever he wants. I accused her of raising a thug. It got bad. Finally the officer, after a lull, said pointing at the friend, 'I can arrest him for theft if you want to press charges. Your son, well, he's your son." Remember, it was her money that got taken. The friend's mother was soon begging her not to let the police be involved any farther. Carrie showed mercy and worked out a deal with her. Each paid half.
Likewise, Courtney and Madison wound up paying off the cards and punishing their kids. Amanda initially thought the charges were regular criminal activity from a stranger and had her credit card company launch an investigation ... only to have to tell them to stop once she found out the charges were coming from inside the house.
What would you do?
Gaming Is A World Of Heavy Sales Pressure And Frictionless Theft
"But this wouldn't be me," you're probably saying to the above question. "I wouldn't raise kids who were goddamned criminals! How is this any different from a kid who shoplifts or deals drugs?"
And that's true, most kids wouldn't do this. But it also doesn't take a tiny psychopath to pull it off. These are kids at an age when they don't have a ton of impulse control, often have no understanding of basic finances ("He said I told him that he could have one game, and he thought that all of these other parts of it fell under that," says Amanda), and are hilariously susceptible to peer pressure. "They were both very honest with me," says Courtney. "They wanted certain clothes for their characters, or the best weapons. They wanted to be the best, or at least with my daughter, it was to look like herself."
What did she mean by that? Well ... "My daughter shaved her head by choice. She gave it to a cancer wig charity, and she wanted her character to have that look. But in real money, it cost $15 for the pack that had that as an option. Then she wanted an outfit like that, and that was even more. Then she wanted to keep up with her friends."
Then there's the other factor to consider: Games are using techniques psychologists and sociologists describe as "addictive" and "gambling." You can find stories of otherwise good kids who stole to support a gaming habit. Gaming addiction is totally a thing, and where you find addiction, you find people stealing to support it. Remember, free mobile games make most of their money from a small core of compulsive big spenders. You know, the same as casinos.
The Aftermath Can Be Crushing
Of the parents we talked to, Amanda alone was able to get charges reversed -- and that took time, and meant getting in trouble with other missed bills in the interim. The rest weren't so lucky. Madison was in financial trouble for a few years as a result of the charges. "We couldn't pay, and it put us in debt. This was like adding a few car payments at once." Like many people in sudden financial desperation, they wound up going with a somewhat dodgy loan service, which quickly snowballed with interest, late fees, and other charges that are in fact the entire basis of their business model. "With the interest and lost ... everything, it was more like 5,000, 6,000. At least." Her husband had been in grad school, and had to drop out for a year.
Carrie and her husband had their credit limit halved, and racked up massive interest. "My son's stupid mistake, which he did to buy games for his friends ... I can't even begin. We had to put off buying a car we wanted because the [credit] rating dipped below where it should have been." As for Courtney, she lost half her savings and a massive amount on a vacation she had only partially paid and couldn't get back because of a non-refundable deposit.
It's in the aftermath where you see the real difference between now and similar shenanigans, say, 30 years ago. If a kid stole a credit card and bought $1,000 worth of clothes, they could presumably be returned. If a kid stole a credit card and tried to buy, say, a thousand comic books, the cashier would probably put a stop to it before they even finished piling them into the shopping cart. There were human safeguards, and for the kids, higher elements of risk. But digital hats for a game character usually can't be returned, and kind of don't exist? It simultaneously hurts worse than actual theft but feels like less of a crime to the kid. It's just a few keystrokes!
And somehow we're thinking this probably probably won't go away in a future in which anything can be purchased from any room via voice commands. Good luck, new parents!
Evan V. Symon is a writer, interview finder, and journalist for the Personal Experiences section at Cracked. Have an awesome job/experience you'd like to see up here? Then hit us up in the forums.
Just have your kids play video games on an Xbox like God intended.
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