SINGAPORE - Lim Cheng Mong was puzzled when the bank called to tell him he had missed a payment of more than $20,000 in overdue credit card debt linked to 89 mysterious transactions under his name.
"At first I thought I was scammed, but the credit card company said these were all legitimate transactions and there was nothing it could do," said Lim, 56, who works as a product manager in a German company.
The billing trail led to his 18-year-old daughter's Grab account, which was tied to his credit card and meant to cover her transportation expenses.
But without his knowledge, the teen had linked her e-wallet to a mobile game called Genshin Impact and went on a six-week spending spree from August to October on in-game purchases to upgrade her avatar.
“I told her off and said it was a lot of money — one year’s worth of school fees if she were to go to an overseas university,” Lim told The Straits Times.
"She just spent the huge sum without blinking an eye," he said.
Such stories of parents forking out large sums to foot bills chalked up by their children's online spending have grown more common as more youngsters are exposed to such transactions with the rise in digitalisation.
Companies that deal with digital payments are now warning parents to set notifications on their e-wallets to keep tabs on and be alerted to their children's spending.
The success of Chinese role-playing fantasy video game Genshin Impact, which has earned more than US$2 billion (S$2.7 billion) since its launch in September 2020, has been marred by criticisms over its in-game purchase system.
The award-winning open-world game is free to play, but progress is slow unless players buy upgrades with real money. Players can try their luck and buy randomised items to upgrade their characters.
Lim's daughter, a student in an International Baccalaureate school, would spend up to $300 to buy these random items. With each purchase, she hoped to get items that would boost her avatar — a mechanic that her father likened to gambling. For this reason, Genshin Impact has been banned in countries such as Belgium, which view the game's "gacha" mechanics as a form of gambling.
"Gacha" is a Japanese word that refers to a vending machine that dispenses randomised toys, usually contained in plastic capsules. Such mechanics are used in other video game titles like Fifa and Star Wars Battlefront.
Genshin's Chinese game developer Mihoyo did not reply to ST queries on this incident by press time.
In Lim's case, his daughter made payments through the Apple App Store and Coda Payments, a major online transaction platform.
In separate statements, spokesmen for Grab and Coda Payments advised users to set up real-time notifications that inform users whenever their e-wallet is charged.
Users can also turn off the auto top-up function and spend within the limits of a budgeted amount, said the Grab spokesman, who added that the company has followed up with Lim on his case.
Coda Payments, which accepts some 250 payment modes to facilitate in-game purchases, said in response to ST queries that it was unable to comment on customer cases for privacy reasons. It urged customers to contact their credit card provider to resolve disputed charges.
When asked, an Apple spokesman directed ST to its support pages, which advised those with multiple devices in a household to set restrictions on all of them.
Apple's Family Sharing function has an Ask to Buy setting that requires the card provider's approval before a purchase can be made, it wrote on its site.
Lawyer Lionel Tan, who specialises in technology, media and telecommunications, said there is a chance of reversing a transaction if a minor played a game meant for adults, or if there were confusing statements in the app that misled a user to pay.
Lim's daughter has just hit the minimum age of 18 that enables her to enter contracts on her own, said Tan from Rajah and Tann Singapore. He added that it is hard to argue that she was not aware that she made the online purchases.
He added that such incidents may be on the rise as more services are going digital. Some cases in which minors under 18 are involved have been amicably resolved due to the fact that the child may not have understood the nature of the purchase, he said.
"The online site may also wish to avoid the negative publicity or regulatory scrutiny that may be drawn to it," said Tan, who advised parents to be aware of their children's Internet and gaming activities.
Lim has since recovered around $10,000 from his credit card issuing bank, which he said was done out of its goodwill. He reminded his 21-year-old son — also an avid gamer — of the risks of online spending and said he would not help his son to pay for online gaming services.
Lim hopes companies and the authorities will review the enforcement of online transactions, especially when children are involved.
He said: "We as parents have totally no control. It is a disaster waiting to happen and I want to make sure more parents are aware of it."
How to set alerts for transactions
Here are some precautions you can take to prevent unwanted transactions in major payment apps:
To set alerts for any transaction, open the Grab app and click on Account, then tap Settings.
Under the GrabPay drop list, click Communications and then select the option to be informed of cashless transactions by e-mail under Transaction Statement.
To enable notifications, tap the bell icon on the top right of the OCBC app log-in screen, where you will see a list of notifications from the bank.
Next, tap the Settings icon on the top left corner and toggle the switch to receive alerts.
Standard Chartered Bank
Set alerts by logging in to the mobile app and select Settings from the drop-down menu.
Tap Inbox Notifications and enable notifications for banking alerts.
Apple App Store
Parents can control apps their children buy on their mobile devices with Ask to Buy, a function under the Family Sharing feature.
Once activated, parents will receive a notification seeking their approval when the child downloads an app.
To activate Ask to Buy, open the Settings app on your mobile device and tap on your name. Enter Family Sharing and tap Ask to Buy.
Then tap on your family member's name and toggle to turn on or off Ask to Buy.
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.