Newly Revealed Documents Show Facebook Gleefully Refusing To Refund Money To Kids Who Ran Up Huge Bills On Mommy's Credit Card

from the coppa-coppa-coppa dept

Because Facebook wasn’t looking awful enough already, some newly unsealed documents from a lawsuit going back a few years are now making the company look even worse, and certainly not doing the company any favors in its efforts to rehabilitate its reputation. Unfortunately, so far, Reveal, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, seems to only be revealing snippets of what’s in the documents, rather than the full documents (come on guys…), but what they’re sharing doesn’t look great.

Specifically, a judge has unsealed previously sealed records from a 2012 class action lawsuit that was settled in 2016, concerning Facebook profiting off of children. The origins of the lawsuit involved a child who got his mother’s credit card to play a game on Facebook, without realizing that the more he played, the more of his mother’s money he was spending — compounded by Facebook then refusing to refund the charges. The latest revelations show that Facebook employees knew that they made this information confusing, in a way that people (kids and adults alike) might not realize they were still spending money off of a credit card, and also having joking conversations about people trying to get their money back. Indeed, the snippet Reveal has released has Facebook employees referring to one teenager as “a whale” — a term used in casinos to refer to big spenders.

In one of the unsealed documents, two Facebook employees deny a refund request from a child whom they refer to as a ?whale? ? a term coined by the casino industry to describe profligate spenders. The child had entered a credit card number to play a game, and in about two weeks racked up thousands of dollars in charges, according to an excerpt of messages between two employees at the social media giant.

Gillian: Would you refund this whale ticket? User is disputing ALL charges?
Michael: What?s the users total lifetime spend?
Gillian: It?s $6,545 ? but card was just added on Sept. 2. They are disputing all of it I believe. That user looks underage as well. Well, maybe not under 13.
Michael: Is the user writing in a parent, or is this user a 13ish year old
Gillian: It?s a 13ish yr old. says its 15. looks a bit younger. she* not its. Lol.
Michael: … I wouldn?t refund
Gillian: Oh that?s fine. cool. agreed. just double checking

Fine. Cool. Agreed. Or not. Not cool at all. And that’s even if you argue (as some have on Twitter) that the “whale” comment is actually a typo for “whole” (and argument multiple people who worked in the space dispute, noting that “whale”/casino terminology was common in online games).

While you might just chalk this up to a conversation among perhaps lower level Facebook employees with screwed up incentives, Reveal notes that other documents make it clear that people within Facebook knew that their confusing UI was contributing to a problem:

Facebook employees began voicing their concerns that people were being charged without their knowledge. The social media company decided to analyze one of the most popular games of the time, Angry Birds, and discovered the average age of people playing it on Facebook was 5 years old, according to newly revealed information.

?In nearly all cases the parents knew their child was playing Angry Birds, but didn?t think the child would be allowed to buy anything without their password or authorization first,? according to an internal Facebook memo. The memo noted that on other platforms, such as Apple?s iPhone, people were required to reauthorize additional purchases, such as by re-entering a password.

A Facebook employee noted that children were likely to be confused by the in-game purchases because it ?doesn?t necessarily look like real money to a minor.?

The documents also note that Facebook didn’t send receipts for these purchases, meaning that parents wouldn’t know about them until way later when the credit card bill shows up. Oh yeah, also “links on the company?s website to dispute charges frequently failed to work.”

While one might try to argue that this is something that happened many years ago, when Facebook wasn’t that careful about things, the company’s reaction to these documents finally being revealed isn’t great either:

In response to a request for an interview, Facebook provided a one-sentence statement: ?We appreciate the court?s careful review of these materials.?

That’s… not going to cut it. In the past year, almost every internet company I talk to is simply seething about Facebook and how it’s basically destroying everything with the hamfisted way it deals with… almost everything. The company’s ongoing and never-ending “apology tour” isn’t changing anything, and if the company can’t figure out that it has to take real ownership of its many problems, past and present, it’s never going to fix them, nor rebuild trust. Responding with that sort of PR speak, rather than saying “we royally fucked up, but that was many years ago, and here are all the concrete steps we’ve taken to fix this” is just incompetent. The company has been in the limelight for so long yet it still doesn’t seem to fathom how to deal honestly with a press that is calling out its many faults. While it is true that plenty of press coverage of Facebook in the past year has been misleading or unfair, the unwillingness of the company to take its real problems seriously, is a huge issue not just for Facebook, but for every other internet company as well.

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Comments on “Newly Revealed Documents Show Facebook Gleefully Refusing To Refund Money To Kids Who Ran Up Huge Bills On Mommy's Credit Card”

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Vidiot (profile) says:

Well, there’s “refusing to refund”, and then there’s “still refusing to refund”. Standard customer service policy is to refuse the first request, and then play out the scenario… see how serious they really are. Cave too quickly, and every customer wants every purchase refunded, they think; wait too long in the dialogue, and kiss the customer goodbye.

As you suggest, it’s much less an issue of refunds, but more about how easy it is for kids… or barely-competent adults… to run up obscene bills on in-game purchases. Good luck attacking that cash cow, though.

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Re:

They’ve been getting increasingly bad PR over the past couple of years, and it has begun to hurt their bottom line. This is one more straw on the camel’s back. This won’t be the one to break it, but if Facebook keeps getting bad news, it’s going to have long-term consequences.

Or maybe everybody will just switch to Instagram and not realize it’s the same company.

DB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I’m guessing that Facebook can push the refund back onto the supplier, the same as they would do if a stolen credit card had been used.

Presumably Facebook doesn’t remit the payments to the game supplier until well after the refund liability has passed, and even then they reserve the right to debit any refund from future payments. And since Facebook has the power in the relationship, they probably charge the supplier for the cost of refunding.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

"Stupid question but why are court documents in cases like these sealed?"

A very pertinent question that was answered in the original article, but which Mr. Masnick completely omitted to include in his writeup. Here’s the actual text:

"The judge agreed with Facebook’s request to keep some of the records sealed, saying certain records contained information that would cause the social media giant harm, outweighing the public benefit."

So it seems the judge thought it was more important to protect Facebook’s reputation (and continued profitability) than the need to inform the public about Facebook’s unethical business practices.

Wolfie0827 (profile) says:

Re: Sucks to be a bad parent

That is part of the point, FB did not make it clear that further purchases would be authorized by what the parent/child thought was a one time purchase. Most other companies make that clear from the outset or give the option to set it as one time purchase or full authorized for any purchase.

Anonymous Cowherd says:

Re: Re: Sucks to be a bad parent

A properly cautious credit card user does not leave their card attached to an account and simply assume it can’t be used for further purchases, unless they’re explicitly told it can’t.

Notwithstanding modern legal systems routinely holding everyone responsible for people’s carelessness and/or stupidity except the people being careless and/or stupid, I believe those people got what they deserved for being careless with their money.

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