FARGO — "Fortnite" is arguably one of the most successful video games of all time, generating $2.4 billion dollars in sales last year alone. But that success is wreaking havoc on some parents' bank accounts thanks to both fraudsters and kids who don't understand what they're getting into.
Epic Games' "Fortnite" was released in 2017 and has seen a meteoric rise ever since then. The most recent data available shows 80 million people worldwide play the digital game of survival every month. Part of its popularity owes to its status as a free-to-use game available on a number of different gaming consoles and devices.
But problems can arise when money starts to change hands. While "Fortnite Battle Royale" doesn't cost a cent to play, it does allow players to buy virtual cash or "V-bucks" that can be used to purchase weapons, character customizations and items to improve their game.
Many parents are finding that out the hard way as they see charges totaling hundreds of dollars from their child's time with the game. On one chat room, a parent complained their 13-year-old son racked up all kinds of charges while playing on the family PlayStation console.
"His PS4 is unbeknownst to me linked to my PayPal account," the chat room parent writes. "I had no idea."
A Fargo father, who wished to remain anonymous, can relate.
"My 10-year-old son racked up about $500 during a four-month period in late 2018 making 'Fortnite' purchases," he says.
The Fargo dad noticed the occasional $20 to $30 charge on his credit card app, but didn't piece things together until his older son told him his brother was making several purchases.
"Normally the kids ask if they can make a purchase, and they have to pay me in cash for any purchase beforehand, and those have been limited," he says. "But since I had a few revolving purchases for game sites and subscriptions, I always figured some of those notifications were for those purchases. Again, I should've been more aware."
According to Pixelprivacy.com, more than 45 million children between the ages of 10 to 17 use the internet. While many of them have been taught in schools and by parents about proper use of the internet, it's hard to cover all of the bases — including a misunderstanding about these microtransactions, or small charges for added game features, that can add up for parents who weren't aware of what their children were spending.
An estimated 62% of teens report their parents have no idea what they're doing online. Some internet retailers, of course, have built-in safety measures, including Amazon, which sends parents texts or emails notifying them that their child is trying to purchase something. They won't process the payment until the parent approves.
But sometimes the problem stems not from a child who buys V-bucks using their parents' accounts, but rather from fraudsters who scam players.
Last year, "Fortnite" went on the offensive on its Twitter account reminding players not to fall for one of the most popular scams — luring players in with promises of "free or discounted V-bucks."
Matt Tatham of Experian consumer credit reporting wanted to dig into these scams a little further, so he searched "free V-bucks" on YouTube. He got 4.6 million hits promising free V-bucks if he went to a website and shared a code from his account. In most cases, that could give scammers access to payment information on smartphones or game consoles.
"Ironically, one video demo of how to get free V-bucks has the username shown as 'VIRUSS999.' While that username may be an easy sign of a fake, other ways to spot a scam video are to look at the number of likes and dislikes a video has received, and whether or not the poster is verified by YouTube with a check symbol next to their name," Tatham wrote in an article detailing his investigation.
According to Pixel Privacy, these kinds of scams are happening more and more to children. In fact, those under 18 are the fastest growing victim group for online crime.
The way to combat either misunderstandings about online purchases or avoiding possible scams might just lie in turning off the video game console and talking to your child about rules and expectations and warn them that not everyone online is a friend.
Take proactive steps in setting up notifications when you can, install apps that could help protect you from hackers and change the way you operate online. For example, the Fargo dad says his son was using his Xbox account, which had buying privileges. That's why he then created a secondary account and locked his son out of any purchasing options.
"I had a talk with him and he understood he was making purchases with real money, not just game points," he says.
The son is now using some of the money he's earned from chores to pay his dad back.
"He still may have to mow the lawn a few times when he gets older," the father says. "It was a good lesson because we talked about what kind of major purchases he could've made down the line with $500, like a nice TV."