Late one night while plowing through a bowl of Mocha Chip ice cream I searched our online credit card statement for a questionable restaurant bill. I casually skimmed through the vendors, ritualistically skipping over one in particular, since it was a point of contention between my husband and I. Still—I couldn’t keep my eyes off our dreaded hot button issue.
His iTunes account.
He is an avid music fan and downloads music regularly. He’s also trained our kids to do the same. After years of questioning him about each and every musical charge, only to have my interrogations met with anything from annoyance to anger, I finally gave up. I likened it to his affinity for fine scotch. A little here and there can’t hurt, as long as he keeps it in check. But now his habit seemed out of control. Why an iTunes charge for $29.99? Seems higher than the usually 99 cents.
Shocked, I looked closer and saw not just one charge, or two, or three—but seven charges on the same day for 7.99, 11.99, 14.99, 19.99 and 29.99, 34,88 and 67.53!. What the hell? My mind whirled. Flustered, I typed “iTunes” into the tiny oblong search box to see how many charges there were in total.
And it hit me like a tsunami!
Charges flooded my page, nearly knocking me off my chair. Hundreds of them. My mouth fell open. Where did these come from? How did this happen? Why hadn’t I seen these before? But mostly — this is my husband’s fault. If he hadn’t been such a dick when I questioned him about his charges, I would have caught these long ago!
My stomach churned as I called him to share the devastating news that our card had been compromised. Just like millions of other Americans, we were now the victims of fraud.
As I scrolled through the bogus charges I quickly realized that this thief wasn’t fooling around. He was slick. Clever. Watched us like hawks. Knew our ITUNES spending habits inside and out. Like George Clooney in Ocean’s 11, but with calluses on his fingers from typing hundreds of fake charges. Any time my husband made a legitimate charge, the thief made his phony ones. In the beginning it was a dollar here, a dollar there, but the longer he went undetected, the bolder he became. Some days the charges exceeded $100! Do you know all the things that I don’t do every day to save $100? Stop at Starbucks or Target or the gym! Give the homeless guy money or wash my car or buy organic! And here was this guy—this creeper—spending the money I tried so hard NOT to! And that, my friends, was crossing the line.
This asshole messed with the wrong mother!
So after notifying my accountant, canceling my credit cards, canceling our iTunes account, and canceling every card I have an auto-debit with that carrier (a dozen bills at least), I began to wonder… really… who is this thief? And if he found me—why can’t I find him?
No longer devastated but invigorated with estrogen filled curiosity, I called iTunes and obnoxiously requested a “a supervisor” from their fraud team. The woman—a gem—studied the charges and told me she was going to look at the origination of their purchases. She asked for the name of all the email accounts in my family. One account in particular interested her—my 15 year old daughter’s. I assured her that account hadn’t been used in years because my daughter only uses her high school account. She asked me to log into her old account to see what was there. 1257 unchecked messages. “I told you, she doesn’t use this account.” Still, she wanted me to look through her iTunes receipts and tell her what I saw. And when I opened up her mailbox—before me stood hundreds of fraudulent charges.
“Oh my god, that’s insane! But why did the hacker send phony iTunes receipts to her inbox?” She explained that my husband had an iTunes account with his credit card information attached, and that our other kids were also listed his account but for some odd reason, the receipts from their purchases were being delivered to my daughter’s dead email account, not his. I still had no CLUE what she was talking about.
“Ma’am, I believe these are actual charges from someone in your family using their iPad.” I looked at the hundreds of charges in front of me. Purchases for something called “bundles of bucks, bags of bucks, and cases of bucks…sacks of gems, piles of gems, and bags of gems…crates of gold, crystal packs, imperial boxes, megapacks… small, medium and large Ballsy Bucks, with Ballsy Bonus Multipliers” all ranging in prices from 1.99 to 69.69. Yes, 69.69!”
“That’s impossible. Only one of my kids plays these games, but he’s only 9 and is the most responsible of all my children. He would never do that kind of thing. Ever. He doesn’t even know our credit card info!”
“I know how hard it is to believe, but it happened to my 7 year old too. Sometimes it’s hard for the little ones to understand they’re playing with real money.”
I barely heard her, as I screamed for my youngest to come into the kitchen, and I asked him if he’d ever used my credit card to buy online game money? Scared, he vehemently swore no, absolutely not. He just plays the games on his ipad and they give him” free money and gems and gold and stuff.”
So I ordered him to sign onto his iPad and showed me how he plays his games. He signed into CLASH OF CLANS, and quickly burned through the “gems” in his stockpile. “Then what happens,” I asked, fearing the worst—“Well, then they let me pick which new gems I want and I click on the biggest piles and keep playing until I run out, and then they give me more.”
Okay, you can see where I’m going with this. The cute cartoon pictures of gems aren’t gems—they’re cash. The shiny fake diamonds aren’t diamonds—they’re cash. Whether they’re called cases, cartons, crates, piles, sacks, bags, add-ons, or multipliers, they are all ingeniously manipulative ways of grabbing the attention of a 9 year old and fooling them into thinking they’re still playing free online games—and the whole thing is a big fat scam. Every time my little zoned out, game-happy, testosterone-filled kid clicked on those gems, it cost me and my husband real live money. Cold hard cash. Thousands of dollars. Because the game designers are incredibly intuitive, and realize that if you don’t touch the factory settings on your iPad to disable the “in app purchases” your kid can click on anything he wants after downloading a free game within the first 15 minutes—automatically connecting to your credit card—without ever having to enter a single credit card number on his iPad. It’s that simple. And that complicated. It’s a perfect flaw in a system designed to take advantage of your kids’ imagination and desire to achieve gamer greatness.
And I know what you’re thinking—only a stupid, absent, or permissive parent would allow their kid to use cold hard cash to buy fake gems in an online game sitting right next to them while they cook dinner. And that stupid parent—is me. A Yale graduate, writer, and mostly-stay-at-home mom who picks up her kids at 3:00, is always available for homework, has strict TV and cellphone rules, and insists on keeping the door open when someone’s on the computer.
Smarter than Mark Zuckerberg, cooler than Jordan Belfort, shorter than Edward Snowden—turns out my son is no innocent 9 year old, but an evil genius working under the radar. A 4th grade Jessie James with a backpack and juice box, who practices trumpet and plays soccer. A brilliant computer hacker who managed to steal thousands of dollars without us ever knowing. And he’s currently asleep in his cowboy pajamas right next to me, feeling just as upset at being tricked as I am. Which makes it incredibly hard to be mad at him.
So I’ll just blame my husband.