My Son The App Bandit

By Tanya Ward Goodman

Teenager using tablet


My bank’s fraud detection department has joined the little village that helps me to be a better parent. It’s thanks to their vigilance that my son’s in-app purchases stayed below the $500 mark.

“We’ve noticed some irregular activity,” a kind voice says. “Super Cell. True Axis.”

“Can you spell that,” I ask. These things sound like anti-aging products or pyramid schemes. For better or worse, I am currently involved in neither.

“Game apps,” the kind voice says.

Ding. Light bulb.

“This may not be fraud,” I say.

And so it begins. The end of a long, lazy afternoon takes a quick u-turn into Television Procedural Crime Drama territory.

“What do you know about Super Cell?” I ask my son using my best Jerry Orbach CSI voice.

The boy gives me a dopey, confused, blank half smile.

“What?” he says, drawing out the vowel.

I level my gaze. “True Axis ring any bells?”

Still, I’m getting the Bambi eyes from my boy, but his lip has begun to tremble.

“I’m gonna have to take a look at your tablet,” I say. Of course, I put a big dent in my credibility when I realize I have no idea how to unlock the darned thing. It’s a Google Tablet, I’m a Mac person. He’s got some kind of password that is a combo of facial recognition and a shape you draw on the screen. It should be programmed to open immediately when it recognizes the face of an angry mother.

Of course I find apps made by True Axis and Super Cell. The parental restriction app we’ve loaded on the tablet tells me he’s been playing these apps at exactly the same time the credit card charges were made.

“That’s so weird,” he says. “That can’t be true.”

I’m baffled by his insistence on innocence. Of course it’s true. But he’s managed to create some kind of parallel universe where he has the power to wish it away. I’m a little bit frustrated and a little bit impressed.

I can tell I’m going to have to take this slow. I tell him the story about my brother’s experience with the Capitol Records club.

“It was so easy,” I say to fill out a postcard and get 10 records for a penny. Why wouldn’t he have done that?”

Of course, my brother didn’t read the small print that said he had to keep buying records every month. Or maybe he did read it and decided it didn’t matter. All I know is that my stepmother spent some time on the phone after a bill for hundreds of dollars showed up in our mailbox.

“He’s just a kid,” she said.

So that’s what I say. “You’re just a kid. You’re learning. I’m here to help you learn.”

“But I didn’t do it,” he maintains.

I show him the list of purchases made. The list is hard to deny. It’s right there on his tablet. The numbers are huge. He’s spent real money on bags of virtual coins and paint jobs for virtual cars. I can feel my face getting hot, but I manage to stay super calm.

“This is a lot of money,” I say.

“I’ll pay you back.”

“If you’re willing to pay me back, it seems like you’re admitting to buying these things.”

“I didn’t buy them,” he maintains.

And so it goes like that. We loop around and around the truth. I let it go slowly. I’m playing the long game.

When my husband returns from work, he wants to cut right to the chase. “What the…” he says.

I recap for him in front of our son. I talk about the Capitol Records Club and how the rules of online purchases may not be so clear and how honesty is really the best policy especially when there is a lot of hard evidence piling up against you. I stay calm.

My son is beginning to crack.

“If I did do it,” he says. “Could we undo it? Could you call someone and explain?”

The Google helpline phone number is difficult to find, but I just follow the trail of online crumbs left by other frustrated parents who tell me to email the help center and ask for a call back. I do and my phone rings almost immediately. It’s kind of creepy.

The person on the other end asks for my son because his name is on the Google Account.

“This is his Mom,” I say.

“Is there a problem with charges?” she asks. “This happens all the time.”

She tells me that once when we bought a book on the tablet, our credit card number “stuck,” and because we hadn’t opted to add a password protection for purchases, it was easy for our boy to charge up a storm. I tell her I thought we did have a password and she says, “Most parents think that.”

My son hugs me hard when I get off the phone.

I hug him back and I tell him the kind woman has reversed all the charges as long as we delete the apps from the tablet. I’m grateful to save a bunch of cash and glad my child doesn’t have to dip into his allowance, but I am also glad that there is some kind of penalty.

“You’ll have to show me how to delete those apps,” I say to my boy.

And this is when he starts to cry. He cries hard and messy. He grabs the tablet and wraps both arms around it.

“Honey, you can’t keep those things,” I say. “They’re stolen.”

It takes a long time to convince him to unwrap his arms and open the apps. There are several to delete and the first, a skateboard game, goes relatively easily. But then, there is “Clash of the Clans.” He opens the game and stares down at the little world he’s created. The tiny images move about on the screen, presumably battling, pillaging and whatnot. My son has purchased gold coins for them. He’s built fortresses and homes.

“I can’t do it,” he says. “I worked so hard on this. I made so much progress. You’re making me kill them.”

I hand him a tissue and explain that these people aren’t real. This work wasn’t honest. When the IRS caught up to Al Capone, he probably felt like he worked really hard, too. I throw around phrases like “ill gotten gains.” And my son cries and cries. As I watch him agonize over the little village, I realize that for him, these beings are real. He’s invested time and effort in building their world. All that newly minted testosterone that in a different century might have fueled wood chopping or cattle herding has gone into massing troops of tiny cartoon warriors.

I put my arm around my boy and he swipes his finger over the “delete” button. The village is gone and my son leans into me, sobbing. I want to cry, too because I’ve taken away something that has given him a sense of accomplishment. I don’t believe the insubstantial virtual world that he mourns deserves the weight of his sorrow. But he does. His energy has given it substance.

The next morning, I point out a story to my son in the business section of the Los Angeles Times. There is a class action suit against Amazon for “in-app” purchases by minors. Another is pending against Google and Apple recently settled a similar suit to the tune of $32.5 million dollars.

“Wow, this is serious,” he says.

It is serious. But what I’m serious about is teaching my boy the value of real work and actual progress. We’ve revamped his list of household chores, giving him more responsibility and independence. We aired up the tires on the bikes and have been riding up the long hill behind our house – each night a little further. He walks the dog and grabs shopping carts for our fellow Trader Joe’s shoppers. He wonders if he can cook dinner at least once a week. And I say, “yes, yes, yes,” because he’s growing up and he needs simultaneously more to do and to do more. He needs work and progress in the real world with real, honest results. We all do and it’s time to lift our faces from the glowing screen and get to it.


Tanya Ward Goodman is the author of the memoir, “Leaving Tinkertown,” published by the University of New Mexico Press.

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Tanya Ward Goodman

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