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Smurfberrygate: Timeline to a Congressional Probe

Two members of Congress have asked regulators to look into reports of exorbitant in-app purchase bills that may have smeared the good name of the Smurfs forever. A look at how the scandal evolved.

Smurfberrygate: Timeline to a Congressional Probe
Smurfberrygate

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Representative Edward Market, a Democrat from Massachusetts, has taken an interest in Smurfs. He’s not a fan of the cartoon, or of the popular “Smurfs’ Village” game on the iPhone. Far from it–he wants the game investigated, together with others that may be racking up exorbitant revenue in-app purchases. He asked the Federal Trade Commission to look into the matter, writing: “I am concerned about how these applications are being promoted and delivered to consumers, particularly with respect to children, who are unlikely to understand the ramifications of in-app purchases.”

Call it Smurfberrygate. How did we get to this pitched moment in our nation’s history? Fast Company has put together a timeline.

October 23, 1958: Prologue to a scandal. Belgian cartoonist Peyo (real name: Pierre Culliford) debuts a comic strip called Les Schtroumpfs. Decades later, Hanna-Barbera adopts the strip into children’s TV series, called The Smurfs. Culliford can hardly have known what he had wrought. The Wikipedia entry on “Smurf economy” states that the Smurfs’ community is a cooperative, blissfully free from profit motives: “each Smurf appears to be given their necessities of life, from housing and clothes to food without using any money in exchange…”

Date undetermined, 1982: Post launches a new cereal, tied to the hit TV series. Its name? Smurfberry Crunch…

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October 28, 2010: It all began quietly enough, with a simple announcement. On this day, Capcom Entertainment revealed that it would be releasing a game for iPhone and iPod touch. Smurfs’ Village, they’d call it, and it would feature little blue creatures running around a forest. To many, the game seemed like a force for good in the world. Macworld praised its graphics, calling them “Smurfy.” The game was free for download, outlets noted. Only one little thing…gamers would be allowed to purchase “Smurfberries,” which “unlock specialty Smurfs, growth formulas, and other bonuses.” Harmless enough–or so it seemed…

December 9, 2010: Muckraking AP journalist Peter Svensson does what he’s trained to do: follow the money. In a report titled “Bushels of ‘Smurfberries’ cost parents buckets of cash,” Svensson first glimpses how deep this scandal goes. One iPad-savvy 4-year-old had recently racked up $66.88 in charges on a game, by gobbling up those Smurfberries. Though in-app purchases typically require entering a password, potentially making the game safe for little ones, that’s not always the case, exposes Svensson. There’s a 15-minute window where a formerly entered password is still active: “That means that if a user enters the password for a purchase or a free app upgrade, then hands the phone or iPad over to a kid, the child will not be stopped by a password prompt.” A recipe, in other words, for disaster…

December 20, 2010: Perhaps fearing a looming Congressional inquiry, Capcom Entertainment updates “Smurfs’ Village.” From this point forward, when the game first launches, it does so with a pop-up warning of in-app purchases. But there’s a dark side to this update, too. Capcom makes it even easier to buy Smurfberries in bulk. Previously, the highest purchase option was a “wheelbarrow” of the berries, for $60. Henceforth, “wagons” can be bought for $100…

February 8, 2011: A day that would live in Smurfing infamy. Washington Post reporter Cecilia Kang breaks a big story. All that eight-year-old Madison from Rockville, MD, had wanted to do was decorate her little mushroom cottage in her favorite iPhone game, Smurfs’ Village. What this budding interior decorator didn’t realize, at that time, was that she was racking up a gargantuan bill in the process. Her mom’s next bill from iTunes was for $1,400.

Two outraged members of Congress come across the report. They decide to send a letter to the FTC. The rest, to borrow the phrase, is history.

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[Images: Flickr user lanacar, vinothchandar]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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